Foreign Policy

Too Big to Fail?

If you're a bit confused about U.S. President Barack Obama's passivity in the face of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's brutal repression of domestic opposition, don't be. Syria isn't Libya. The Assad regime is just too consequential to risk undermining.

Although the fall of the House of Assad might actually benefit U.S. interests, the president isn't going to encourage it. For realists in the White House, Assad's demise carries more risks than opportunities.

Great powers behave inconsistently -- even hypocritically -- depending on their interests. That's not unusual; it's part of the job description. In fact, in responding to the forces of change and repression loosed throughout the Arab world, flexibility is more important than ideological rigidity.

The last thing America needs is a doctrine or ideological template to govern how it responds to fast-breaking changes in a dozen Arab countries, all of which are strikingly different in their respective circumstances.

That the administration's response often seemed like a giant game of whack-a-mole, with a new problem popping up daily, was inevitable. And so was the variety of U.S. responses. In Bahrain, where the United States had established the headquarters of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, and in Yemen, where counterterrorism is king, interests trumped values. You didn't hear Obama make any "Qaddafi must go"-style speeches directed against Bahrain's ruling Khalifa family or Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The contradictions and anomalies of U.S. foreign policy have also been on stark display in the Obama administration's differing responses to Qaddafi's and Assad's repression of their own people.

Beating up Qaddafi proved doable and necessary to prevent what was viewed as potential atrocities by his forces in Benghazi. Libya had few significant air defense systems and no friends; it was relatively easy to construct a coalition of the (semi-)willing in the United Nations, NATO and the Arab League to oppose the man President Ronald Reagan once dubbed the "mad dog of the Middle East" -- a tin pot and often bizarre dictator who opposed reform and political change. If you wanted to construct a more vulnerable target in a laboratory, you couldn't have done much better.

Syria presents a profoundly different situation. U.S. policy has always been driven by the hope that the Assads would change and the fear of what might replace them if they fell. Three additional realities ensured a U.S. response quite different from the one for Libya.

First, Syria was hard. It's a country with a sophisticated air defense system, chemical and biological weapons, and a great many friends -- including Iran and Hezbollah, which are capable of striking back. Marshaling support at the United Nations, mobilizing NATO, and getting buy-in from the Arab League in the way that made the Libya intervention possible are not in the cards. Some of America's closest friends, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, are also not at all sure that Syria without Assad would be better than with him.

Second, for most U.S. presidents -- Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush being the exceptions -- Syria has served as a kind of unholy diplomatic grail. Since Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, U.S. policymakers had viewed the Assads as pragmatists capable of facilitating or blocking U.S. policy in Lebanon and the Arab-Israeli peace process.
Aaron David Miller is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His book, Can America Have Another Great President?, will be published in 2012.

The above article was published in foreignpolicy.com on May 12th, 2011 (2:55 p.m.).

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