In The Wall Street Journal, Walter Russell Mead argues that Vladimir Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine was a favor in disguise, a wake-up call for weary Americans who’ve been wishing the world away. Unfortunately, I suspect it will take greater tragedies than this to show us the danger of withdrawing from the world. Yes, there is utility in deterring Putin, even in weakening him domestically, but it’s hard for most of us to see a border war over Russian-speaking parts of the Ukraine as a direct threat to us, particularly if Putin’s actions also drive much of Central Europe closer to the U.S. and the EU. In the end, we see Putin as the leader of a nation of bitterly declining demographics and economics, of local (rather than messianic) ambitions. Russia is a problem to be dealt with through traditional realpolitik.
The greater tragedy could be North Korea, but in North Korea, almost everything is hidden from us, and what isn’t hidden is often dismissed as farce. Another greater tragedy that has unfolded in plain (or plain enough) sight is Syria, where North Koreans recently served as “observers” for Bashar Assad’s sham reelection. As is so often the case with North Korea, this would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. This, too, will be dismissed as farce, but it shouldn’t be.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, whom President Obama personally chose for the job, and who represented our country ably, bravely, and honorably during his tour, has come out to denounce President Obama for his inaction there, and for creating in Syria the very thing so many Americans fought and died to prevent in Afghanistan and Iraq.
ROBERT FORD: In the end, Margaret, I worked from Washington on the Syria issue for two years. Events on the ground were moving and our policy was not evolving very quickly. We were constantly behind the curve, and that’s why, now, we have extremist threats to our own country. We had a young man from Florida, apparently, who was involved in a suicide bombing and there will be more problems like that, I fear. Our policy was not evolving and finally I got to a point where I could no longer defend it publicly. And as a professional career member of the U.S. diplomatic service, when I could no longer defend the policy in public, it is time for me to go.
MARGARET WARNER: What was the biggest mistake you think the Obama administration, this government, made?
ROBERT FORD: As I said, we’ve consistently been behind the curve; that events on the ground are moving more rapidly than our policy has been adapting, and at the same time Russia and Iran have been driving this by increasing — and steadily increasing, increasing massively, especially the Iranians — their support to the Syrian regime. And the result of that has been more threats to us in this ungoverned space which Assad can’t retake. We need — and we have long needed — to help moderates in the Syrian opposition with both weapons and other nonlethal assistance. Had we done that, a couple of years ago, had we ramped it up, frankly the al-Qaeda groups that have been winning adherents would have been unable to compete with the moderates who, frankly, we have much in common with. But the moderates have been fighting constantly with arms tied behind their backs because they don’t have the same resources that either Assad does or the al-Qaeda groups in Syria do. [PBS NewsHour]
Things in Syria have turned out pretty much as I feared they would, when I warned nearly two years ago that we should have supported moderates there, back when they were plentiful. Worse, our early failure to support the Syrian opposition has meant many lost opportunities for peace in neighboring states:
[T]he overthrow of the Assad regime is strongly in our interests. The Assads are a proliferation threat — they have chemical weapons, they may have biological weapons, and they tried to acquire nuclear weapons from North Korea. Assad’s collapse will further isolate Iran and increase pressure on its regime. It will isolate Hezbollah, which could make Lebanon more stable and democratic. Hamas is already betting on a rebel victory, but Syrian regime that does not actively support Hamas would mean a less radicalized, less anarchic, and more unitary Palestine. Finally, it would deny North Korea one of its most important arms clients, and we have an interest in seeing to it that another good client doesn’t replace Assad.
Instead of offering a credible response to criticisms that events have since validated, President Obama recently went to West Point to accuse advocates of a braver, more decisive foreign policy of being war-mongers. This is a silly argument that deserved to be (and was) was widely panned, even by those who usually support the President, or once did.
The argument was also an ironic one, because when the President wanted to intervene in Syria directly, I opposed it. One reason for this was that I didn’t see direct intervention as our best option. My default view — a view that the Iraq experience has reinforced — is that liberation is best left to the liberated. I’m unwilling to support direct intervention unless I’m convinced that we have no worthy or capable allies within the nation concerned, or that the danger is too great and too immediate to address in other, less costly ways.
Another reason was that I didn’t trust this administration to see the effort through. Syria was to be a war to protect the credibility of President Obama’s “red line.” But nothing would have done more harm to our nation’s credibility than to start another war without finishing it. We’ve done far too much of that already. That’s why Assad felt safe in crossing President Obama’s red line in the first place, and still does.
The President’s early inaction in Syria means that today, Syria has become what Afghanistan became in the early 1990s, and what we fought to keep Iraq from becoming in 2006. We can already see the shape of the threat that’s forming in Syria now, where the next generation of terrorists is training. One can easily imagine the shape it could take ten years from now, when they acquire some portion of Syria’s chemical or biological weapons.
The fiasco in Syria is probably the greatest security threat to the United States to have emerged in the last ten years, yet there is little political consciousness of this today, just as there was little consciousness of how, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Presidents Clinton and Bush stood by while Afghanistan fell to the forces anarchy and theocracy. For that matter, President Clinton’s North Korea policy probably polled well in the 1990s, when he allowed North Korea to go nuclear (the same could be said of George W. Bush in 2007). President Obama’s anemic support for the Iranian opposition in 2009 means we’ll face an intensifying nuclear crisis there. Each of these politically easy decisions-of-least-resistance imposed a terrible cost on our national security later. Each deserves to tarnish the legacy of the president who was responsible for it.
Unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way. The paradox for presidents is that voters reward decisions of least resistance, at least until the consequences show up. Remember the last time a President led the nation by explaining the cost of inaction? It convinced most of us in 2003. In retrospect, few of us would do that again. Almost every part of our national security establishment failed us – from the intelligence agencies, to the Army’s ham-handed pre-Petraeus search-and-destroy tactics, to a political class that voted to invade and that later turned opportunistically against the war, advocating a sudden withdrawal that would have left Al Qaeda victorious and ascendant. Perhaps the liberation of Iraq ought to have been left to the liberated, too, but by 2006, it was too late to make that decision.
One day, the political system in North Korea will also fracture. When that happens, I hope this President or his successor will learn the lesson of Syria and be prepared to support any opposition movement willing to support our interests and our values. We will not have three years to waste on paralysis-by-analysis when that opportunity presents itself. A North Korea that comes under the control of more rational and statesmanlike leaders will be an opportunity for peace and prosperity in a region with almost incalculable potential for both prosperity and crisis. A North Korea that clings to power through terror will eventually give other terrorists — perhaps terrorists trained in Syria — the means to do incalculable damage to our allies, and to our own country.