Dear President Obama:
Last week, you were super-busy in Europe, warning Vladimir Putin not to invade eastern Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Moscow’s takeover of Crimea is a done deal, and there’s even more worrying stuff going on elsewhere. Your CIA chief, John Brennan, just told a House panel that al-Qaida central is now using Syrian territory to train Western jihadis to attack Europe and America.
In Afghanistan (remember Afghanistan?), Taliban bombers are threatening this week’s elections. They are getting help from the intelligence services of our supposed ally Pakistan even as we prepare to exit the country. Equally worrying, the Pakistani Taliban are wreaking havoc inside nuclear-armed Pakistan, whose government has no apparent strategy to counter them – except to beg for peace.
There’s a link between all these headaches, and you sometimes seem to get it, but your foreign policy doesn’t reflect that understanding. Isn’t it time your team started connecting the dots?
We know you hoped the world had entered a new era in the 21st century in which nations could solve messy problems by diplomacy, not force. Putin put an end to such illusions. As they say in the military, “It is what it is,” and your foreign policy has to adjust.
You were correct to say last week in Belgium that Russia isn’t our top geopolitical threat (listen up, Mitt Romney). You are also right that Russia is only a “regional power” that mainly threatens its immediate neighbors (though your public insults to Putin could make him more aggressive).
You also said that you were “much more concerned when it comes to our security with the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan.” In other words, the biggest threat to the United States is the possibility that jihadis could access nuclear weapons. Yet that threat is expanding on your watch.
Over the last two years, a new jihadi safe haven has emerged in large areas of eastern Syria stretching through western Iraq. Thousands of foreign jihadis have poured into the area, including about 1,200 American and European Muslims; some senior al-Qaida veterans arrived from Pakistan and may seek to coordinate attacks against the West. In March, Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told a Senate committee that “al-Qaida has declared Syria its most critical front.”
Yet for the last two years, as moderate Syrian rebel groups lost ground to better-armed jihadis, you refused to confront reality in Syria. You clung to a diplomatic strategy that depended on Putin to persuade his ally Assad to stand down. That hope was doomed from the beginning; Russia’s strong backing of Assad at this year’s Geneva II peace talks ensured that they would fail.
Yet, despite Putin’s support for Assad, and despite his Crimea landgrab, your Syria policy has failed to adjust.
Your officials still insist that only diplomacy can end the conflict, but such diplomacy still depends on Russia. As Putin’s move on Crimea should have made obvious, the Russian isn’t moved by appeals to international law.
The only thing that might grab Putin’s attention and compel him to bargain would be a shift in the playing field – if it looked as if Assad’s fortunes were declining. Achieving that would require you to green-light delivery of portable antiaircraft systems that vetted Syrian rebel groups could use to shoot down Assad’s planes and helicopters – which rain missiles and “barrel bombs” on civilians. (Even if Putin failed to respond, empowering vetted rebel groups would strengthen their hand against jihadis, as well.)
Yet your team is still haggling over whether to approve delivery of even a handful of such weapons. Yes, there is a risk that some might go astray, but that can be addressed by designing careful controls, which vetted rebel groups are ready to agree to. If you remain paralyzed, Assad looks certain to retain power in the coastal part of the country and a belt that includes the major cities. The rest of Syria will remain a failed state, giving jihadis a safe haven from which to destabilize Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon, and to threaten Israel – along with the West. Think of it as a new Afghanistan on the Mediterranean that shares a border with Turkey, a NATO nation.
Meantime, Afghanistan trembles under Taliban attack as U.S. forces exit. Next door, Pakistan’s weak government and uncertain military fail to halt the growth of jihadi terrorism in their nuclear-armed country. One could imagine some of those Pakistani weapons someday finding their way to the new Syrian jihadistan.
So if you really believe nuclear terrorism is America’s number-one security challenge, Mr. President, you can no longer dither over Syria.
You’ve sensibly said the United States won’t use force against the Russians, even if Putin invades eastern Ukraine. In this case, we must play a long game, using economic and energy tools to constrain the Russian leader.
But on Syria, it’s long past time to take a lesson from Putin and back diplomacy with power. To smash the new terrorist stronghold in Syria will take more than sending meals-ready-to-eat to moderate rebels. Tough talk is no substitute for deeds.