All the President’s Blunders
By Michael Doran
December 23, 2015
President Obama’s foreign
policy failures—Iran, Syria, Russia—aren’t accidents. They’re rooted in flawed theories and misguided
Many thanks to Dennis Ross and
Leon Aron for their comments on “Our
Man in Moscow.” They’re greatly appreciated.
Dennis Ross is not only an
insightful analyst of American foreign policy but a man of affairs with a depth
of experience that few can match. In a career that has lasted some four decades,
he has advised presidents of both parties, including President Obama. I’m
therefore grateful to him for taking the time to respond to my essay, and
delighted that he supports my conclusion: namely, that Obama’s approach to the
Syrian civil war amounts to a major strategic blunder.
Ross, however, misleads in
suggesting that I “should know better” than to explain that strategic
blunder as the result of a “conspiracy.” Just to clear the air: I do know
better, and I didn’t so explain it. Merriam-Webster defines “conspiracy”
as “a secret plan made by two or more people to do something that is harmful
or illegal.” Conspiracies, that is to say, involve both secrecy and collusion.
Neither element is critically present in my argument.
With respect to secrecy, I did
indeed assert that Obama has been hiding certain controversial details of his
policies from the American public, and from his own advisers. But I also noted
that from his earliest days in office, Obama has been perfectly clear about his
general vision of world order. With the passage of time, moreover, he has become
increasingly open even about the more controversial implications of that vision.
I could hardly have made a compelling case if I did not have at my disposal an
extremely large body of public statements expressing his desire to cooperate
with Russia and Iran, especially in Syria.
Nor, with respect to the second
aspect of the word “conspiracy,” does my essay accuse Obama of colluding
with anyone. On the contrary, it argues that the president has long professed
his personal hope of wooing Vladimir Putin. Here, too, I base myself on a large
body of evidence. In recent weeks alone, for example, Obama has again reiterated
his belief that American and Russian interests converge in Syria, and that this
convergence requires us to work with the Russians so as “to make the kind of
strategic shift that’s necessary and that, frankly, I’ve talked to
Putin about for five years now” (emphasis added).
According to Ross, this five-year
dialogue with the Russian leader bears no relation to and has exercised no
influence on Obama’s actions. Instead, Ross depicts the president’s Syria
policy as a series of ad-hoc choices punctuated by some bad breaks and
reflecting a complete lack of strategy and purpose.
This conception of Obama as a
hesitant man without a clear vision was popular in Washington at the beginning
of the president’s second term, but it has steadily given way to a very
different view: that the president is large and in charge. An important shift in
public perception took place in November 2013 when the journalist Glenn Thrush,
writing in Politico, revealed that
the president, with the help of a very small coterie of White House aides, was
neutering his senior cabinet officials. In Thrush’s reconstruction, the climax
of the story took place in August 2013, when the president reversed his decision
to bomb Syria without consulting either Secretary of State John Kerry or
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.
Over the last two years, countless
additional reports have corroborated Thrush’s depiction of a centralized White
House. All three of Obama’s former secretaries of defense have testified that
he micromanages the bureaucracy on key issues—Syria being primary among them.
Hagel goes so far as to claim that the White House attempted to “destroy”
him when he refused to toe the line on Syria. To be sure, Hagel also echoes
Ross’s complaint that Obama has no strategy; but he simultaneously confesses
that he was completely excluded from the White House inner circle. And Ross
himself, in an essay on the evolution of Iran policy, has admitted that he was
not among the president’s close confidants. Obama listened to advice from
aides, but in the end, Ross writes, he “kept his counsel to himself.”
Ross’s value as an eyewitness is
therefore limited, and that value diminishes further when one considers that he
left the White House in 2011. It was only many months later that the escalating
Syrian civil war forced Obama to weigh in the balance his commitment to
America’s traditional allies in the Middle East against his courtship of
Vladimir Putin and Ali Khamenei.
Ross avoids any discussion of that
calculus and its trade-offs, which are at the heart of my essay. Instead, he
explains the whole of Obama’s Syria policy as a haphazard effort to avoid a
quagmire. He is correct to say that Obama fears a slippery slope, but that fact
is hardly sufficient to explain the president’s actions. One could easily
imagine a different president, facing the same circumstances and harboring the
same fears, deciding instead to focus on building up traditional allies. To
understand why Obama rejected and continues to reject that option, one must
contend with his ideas about world order.
Ross admonishes me for dwelling on
this issue. My time would be better spent, he advises, by asking, “What are
the right lessons to be learned from Iraq and Syria?” That, however, is
precisely the question my essay addresses. As I wrote, Obama was among those
who, in 2006, convinced themselves that his predecessor, George W. Bush, had
committed an egregious error by failing to engage Russia and Iran more
constructively. To many foreign-policy professionals on both sides of the
political aisle, it was clear that Russia and Iran shared vital interests in the
Middle East with the United States and that we should act to “engage” them.
That view is more controversial today than it was in 2006, recent years having
dealt it a harsh blow. But it is still alive and well in a number of quarters,
including the Oval Office.
Leon Aron, in his own
scintillating response to my essay, has much to teach anyone interested in
understanding the mistaken lessons that Obama has drawn from America’s recent
experiences in the Middle East.
Aron opens his response with a
“narrow amendment” to my argument in the form of a reminder: when Obama
first issued his Russian “reset,” he was more focused on nuclear disarmament
than on the Middle East. (Ross makes a similar point in his rejoinder.) I agree
that at the beginning of his first term, arms control was Obama’s top
priority. If I read Aron correctly, however, Obama was also convinced that a
humbler and more congenial approach to Russia would bring dividends in more
areas than one. Obama’s commitment to the “reset,” that is to say, was as
much a philosophical position as a pragmatic effort to achieve specific policy
When it comes to Syria, at any
rate, Aron and I are alike in concluding that Vladimir Putin does not share
Obama’s vision of that country (and never will). I reached that conclusion on
the basis of a rather narrow reading of Moscow’s interests. For his part, Aron
presents a much broader framework in which to understand Putin, one based on a
deep reading of Russian history and culture.
The full value of Aron’s
approach comes to light in his unmasking of the flawed assumptions behind
Obama’s “realist” approach to international politics. The president and
his secretary of state, John Kerry, seem to believe that if the U.S. adopts the
terminology of an impartial mediator, speaking of Russia as a “stakeholder”
with “equities” in Syria, Putin will eventually come around to see the world
just as Americans do, and all that is required is patience. As Obama put it
recently: “[I]t may take some months for the Russians and the Iranians and
frankly some members of the Syrian government . . . to recognize the truths that
I just articulated.”
Obama will leave office long
before Moscow, Tehran, and Damascus “recognize” those truths, if they ever
do. It will therefore be up to the next president to chart a different course.
Leon Aron provides him or her with a good place to start: hastening the
departure of Bashar al-Assad. The ouster of the Syrian dictator will deliver a
strategic defeat to both the Russians and the Iranians while also signaling to
our traditional friends in the Middle East that the United States is ready, once
again, to work with them to stabilize the region.