Foreign policy reality: changed circumstances require new answers


US President Barack Obama answers a question during a joint press conference with his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai in the East Room at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 11, 2013.


Jewel Samad

OWL'S HEAD, Maine — President Obama's Republican opponents complained that the domestic elements of his inaugural address were too partisan and too focused on what he hopes to accomplish over the next four years. Presumably they prefer Obama's usual vision of lofty idealism which, thanks to those very same Republicans, the country is no closer to than it was four years ago.

Obama's comments on foreign policy, by contrast, were just the sort of blah, blah, blah rhetoric we've come to expect from him, the kind of feel good eloquence that no one can get their hands around and from which, therefore, no one can discern any particular action:

"We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war. Our brave men and women in uniform, tempered by the flames of battle, are unmatched in skill and courage … We will defend our people and uphold our values through strength of arms and rule of law. We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully … We will support democracy from Asia to Africa, from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom …"

There's a certain irony in Obama's willingness to spell out what he hopes to do domestically, which to be sure is of prime interest to his fellow citizens, but to neglect to tell them what's on his mind in the foreign policy arena, where the nation's actions can be of life and death importance.

If we need a debate on Obama's domestic agenda — "the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care costs and the size of our deficit, ... the threat of climate change, ... the path towards sustainable energy sources" — do we not need an equally public discussion on how to deal with an exploding Middle East whose outcome could have as much impact as the oil embargo of the early '70s or the overthrow of the shah at the end of that decade?

Take Iran: is it Obama's plan to "resolve our differences peacefully" or to launch a preemptive attack whose repercussions could be considerably worse for our nation and the rest of the world than that long-ago oil embargo?

Or Syria: when, if ever, will "our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom?" And if they do, what would such actions be? Obama's foreign policy principles are fine and noble — you can imagine the head of almost any Western democracy subscribing to the same abstract doctrine — but how exactly will they translate into policy?

Hillary Clinton was warmly applauded these last few weeks for her successes as secretary of state — despite the fact that her victory lap was in an appearance before Congress to answer Republicans' trumped-up charges about a Benghazi cover-up — but it's hard to see what exactly are the foreign policy triumphs for which she was so effusively praised.

Has Iran backed off from its potential march toward nuclear weapons? Are we any closer to an Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution (or any solution at all)? And now that US troops have been completely withdrawn from Iraq, is it a stable voice for moderation in the Middle East? Has the US been able to develop a closer working relationship with Russia's Putin? No, no, no and no. And that's without considering how we are doing with Afghanistan, Pakistan, China or North Korea.

The point is not that Obama's first term and Clinton's stewardship as secretary of state was a foreign policy failure, but rather that the world, despite the fact that the Cold War ended nearly a quarter of a century ago, is an increasingly unstable place. One wonders if Obama has any strategic, long-term vision. Or, if as seems to be the case, our foreign policy is merely a tactic of reacting to various events thrust upon us.

Maybe that's the best that can be hoped for. Maybe, after the self-inflicted disasters of the decade-long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a US government that's more reluctant to get involved in the messy affairs of the rest of the world — an America that's reactive rather than proactive — is the most sensible way of facing an unknowable and unpredictable future.

On the other hand, perhaps we've learned the wrong lesson because when we were proactive under George W. Bush we got it wrong — does that mean that being proactive is always wrong?

Mali is an interesting case in point. The fact that the French have apparently succeeded in driving the Islamist rebels out of Timbuktu and the north does not mean that a proactive military approach will always be the answer to Islamist extremism. But maybe it's an answer in some circumstances. Maybe there are times when military action in a faraway country is the least bad option.

Back to Syria. There was a strong case to be made nearly two years ago — at the onset of the Syrian uprising — that sitting on our hands and letting events unfold was the correct approach. It was an approach that I supported.

The assumptions behind such inaction were that, as with Egypt's Mubarak, the downfall of the Assad regime would occur within months not years. While revolutions never proceed in straightforward paths, Syria would not descend into the kind of chaos that marked the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Most importantly, whatever happened, it would not spread beyond Syria's borders.

Now these assumptions seem outdated. The opposition forces include strong Islamist elements that — whether or not they are tied directly to Al Qaeda — espouse a similar philosophy.

Assad is receiving significant support from Iran. Iran's proxy Hezbollah is the dominant power in the weak Lebanese government. Syria's Kurds are in touch with their cousins in Iraq and Turkey. Iraq's Shiite government is meanwhile increasingly nervous about an ultimate Sunni takeover in Syria. Finally, as the civil war has progressed, the likelihood that opposition forces will end up fighting each other when Assad is overthrown has grown significantly.

Surely the radical Islamists will be receiving arms and weapons from abroad, so it's easy to see the possibility of a looming conflagration — and we haven't even considered Israel's reaction.

US involvement, with or without our European allies, would never of course have been simple and could easily have made a bad situation worse. Is that still the case though?

In recent months the Syrian air force has become much more active, bombing areas under rebel control and substantially increasing the number of civilian deaths. Is now an appropriate time to initiate a no-fly zone over the north of the country, using the Patriot air defense missiles we have recently sent to Turkey?

Could a successful effort to destroy Assad's air force cause massive defections and bring down his regime? Could drone attacks against his palace and military headquarters in Damascus have the same effect?

Incoming Secretary of State John Kerry will have the opportunity of looking anew at the world. There are few situations where there is an absolute right answer, but there are many where changed circumstances require new answers. Is there a better solution towards Syria than our current one of just muddling through and hoping for the best?

Mac Deford is retired after a career as a foreign service officer, an international banker, and a museum director. He lives in Owls Head, Maine, and still travels frequently to the Middle East.