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A Middle East doctrine

Posted: September 3, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: September 3, 2013 2:00 a.m.

After 9/11, after Iraq, after more than a decade of war in Afghanistan, and after Libya, the American public has little appetite for a military conflict in another nation — especially one in the Middle East, like Syria.

The Syrian civil war is complex. So far, at least eight proxy nations and groups are either directly engaged or providing aid to one side or another. For Hezbollah jihadists in Syria, it’s a war to defend Islam from wrong-thinking Islamists. For al-Qaida — the strongest, most cohesive rebel group — it’s an opportunity to seize a nation-state. For Syrian President Bashar Assad, it’s about holding on to and asserting power.

For the U.S. and Russia, the Syrian civil war impacts a wide range of geopolitical issues. For Israel, Jordan and Turkey, the conflict affects regional stability and their own national security. For Iran, which has gone beyond support and put troops on the ground, it’s about increasing influence — and consolidating control of the country.
The conflict has generated a huge humanitarian crisis, a crisis bigger than the possible failure of the Syrian nation-state itself.

Even the Arab League is split on Syria. After adopting a resolution asking the United Nations to “take the necessary deterring measures against the perpetrators,” it stopped short of demanding military intervention.

Given that the crisis in Syria already has worldwide implications, and with so many countries involved, it’s understandable (and preferable) that U.S. President Barack Obama is being deliberate about responding to the reported use of chemical weapons.

Those arguing for massive intervention should remember that few of the rebels have goals that coincide with U.S. interests and democratic values. Syria is not Libya or Tunisia or Egypt. And while U.S. warships gather in the Mediterranean, a Russian warship and submarine are moving in as well. And an unsupported attack by America might be used as an excuse for a terrorist attack here.

As Bill Clinton used to say about difficult decisions, “If there was an easy answer for this, someone would have found it already.”

The political commentary, predictably, has been vocal, contradictory and full of “sound and fury.” Reactions from the punditry and a few politicians have too often been more knee-jerk than well-considered.

Policy and political objectives drive some of the commentarial incoherence. But perhaps the most important reason for the unbridled speculation is that Obama’s Middle East foreign policy is deliberately fluid, in order to respond to a fluid situation.

Yet the same flexibility that allows the U.S. to adapt to an ever-changing, volatile Arab Spring — in which fallen dictators have left vacuums of power — also gives rise to the mistaken idea that we have no Middle East foreign policy.

The president needs to articulate his “Obama Doctrine” for the Middle East, explaining to the American people and our allies what he considers to be America’s interests in the region, how he believes America’s values apply there, and how he intends to defend our interests and advance those values in an unstable environment.

The doctrine is present. The basic principles are in his speeches and actions: Obama campaigned on the position that America should not unilaterally engage in the internal conflicts of other countries.

The president prefers collective action. He first exhausts diplomatic avenues, seeking political solutions, before resorting to military interventions. The war drummers, who criticize Obama for not rushing our military into the Syrian conflict’s blind alley, seem to ignore the pace and process of diplomacy. (Our ambassador to Syria was the first to visit Syrian rebels — at a time when Assad was far more powerful than he is today.)

Abraham Lincoln also received unremitting criticism for his “slowness” in making decisions during our own Civil War. Lincoln was a careful thinker, reflective and deliberative, who rarely acted in haste. History judged him wise. When the survival of freedoms is at stake, it’s good to be carefully deliberative.

Still, the president needs to do what he does best: explain a complex issue. The American people need to understand the framework for a policy based on flexibility, rather than on rigid ultimatums. That way, they will see the purpose and hopefully support the goals of the president’s actions.

While the president and his foreign policy experts have repeatedly stated — and acted upon — the values and goals of the president’s Middle East policy, it’s not enough. While it’s important that foreign governments understand these aims through extensive diplomatic communications with Obama, it’s not enough.

The Congress, the media and especially the American people need to “get it.” It’s time for an Obama Doctrine.

Donna Brazile is a senior Democratic strategist, a political commentator and contributor to CNN and ABC News.


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