Here's How Obama Escapes the Biggest Foreign Policy Disaster in 10 Years


As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov discuss what to do about Syria's chemical weapons stocks in Geneva this week, the Assad regime, Russia, and a host of other factions and stakeholders are getting exactly what the offer was meant to provide: Time.

Time — lots of it — is what it will take for such a lofty plan to "work." From the endless rewording of the proposed resolution to please all members of the United Nations Security Council, to positioning assets, to locating the weapons, removing them, and monitoring success will be all but impossible — and let's not forget that this is supposed to take place in the middle of a bloody civil war. 

The logistics of the Russian plan seem almost too complex to calculate. Of the more ironic facets is that while a strike — at least initially — would not require boots on the ground, removing chemical weapons from Syria makes a ground force mandatory for the protection of inspectors and their support teams. How big will this force be? Who will make up the bulk of it? Both Russian and U.S. soldiers seem all but guaranteed to be involved. What are the rules of engagement when a suicide bomber decides to give one of them a hug, or a sniper picks off a Marine?

It seems inevitable that Jabhat Al-Nusra or another Al-Qaeda affiliate will do all it can to muddle this effort. Pulling the West into wars is a tried and true method of beating down Al-Qaeda's nemeses. Osama bin Laden did it when he orchestrated the leveling of the World Trade Center on 9/11, calculating that the U.S. would engage in a long and bloody war in Afghanistan. He didn't know at the time that he'd get Iraq as a bonus.

This supposedly "diplomatic" option seems destined to fail while providing more time for death and destruction. But let's be clear: this option, just like a strike, was never meant to end hostilities, but to prevent the use of a certain type of weapon, which in the aggregate is responsible for 1% of the total lives lost in the war thus far. Both options are horrendous, since they will do nothing to curtail the rest of the conflict which is being waged by rifle, mortar, and rocket propelled grenade.

But it seems now that the U.S. has entered a most bizarre foreign policy landscape in the Middle East in which the worst option on the table has become the best, even the mandatory.

In a rare alignment of policy wonk all-stars, the Institute of Politics at Harvard University put together Joseph Nye, Nicholas Burns, and Niall Fergusson on a panel last night on whether attacking Syria was a good idea right now.

Nye made the point that President Obama had placed himself in a tight box by drawing a red line on Syria in the first place. Once Assad crossed that line, he felt forced to do something since the world would be watching to see the reaction, even though the American public is deeply wary of another U.S. engagement in the region. Putin then came along and offered Obama a way out of the box, and he grabbed the rope with both hands.

But unless Obama can reclaim the reigns from Putin by setting hard stipulations on this proposed plan, that same rope will hang him out to dry when Russia, the Assad regime, Iran, Al-Qaeda affiliates, and others gain valuable time and diplomatic clout by avoiding a strike from the big, bad U.S. of A and making the American president look like a fool. 

Given that Putin's proposal seems destined for failure regardless, Obama needs to insist on a mandate for two timetables: a timetable for agreement through the Security Council, and if that passes, a timetable for positioning assets and following through with the operation. If either of these two timetables are violated, President Obama must go back to the plan for a strike -without Congressional approval- since at that point there is simply no other option. If Putin refuses such stipulations, the U.S. must walk away.

Further, Obama must reach out to Iranian President Rouhani to be a part of the process. Rouhani provides a rare opportunity to bring Iran — at least slowly — out from the parapets of its nuclear program and back to the international community. To squander this opportunity, like so many before it, would be a disaster. 

By publicly reaching out to Rouhani to help solve this quagmire, he simultaneously acknowledges Iran's place at the international table — something the Iranian regime has demanded for some time — and forces the world to watch as Iran's supposedly more moderate president decides whether he will be a part of the solution or a part of the problem. If Rouhani agreed, which might be likely given his flagrant denunciation of chemical weapons use in Syria and his plea for the international community to stop it from happening again, a vital step towards reconciliation with the West could be achieved. 

President Obama has the ability to adjust the sails and reclaim his position as chief decision maker in this crisis. Letting Putin look like a savior, whom he continues to paint himself as in the op-ed section of the New York Times by tugging the heart strings of the American people, is a gross mistake that can be avoided. Obama could gain American and international support by addressing the public with this new plan, honestly describing the power politics involved, and the calculations that must be made. After all, honesty is what makes great leaders great.

The longer we allow foreign powers to steer the ship, the longer people will continue to suffer. While neither option is good, the strike has become a necessary bargaining chip and now must be used if American resolve is tested in this new and unforeseen situation.