Obama-Kerry magical thinking, then and now

Secretary of State John Kerry says he’s willing to talk with Syrian president Assad in the hope of reaching an agreement to end Syria’s civil war. “We have to negotiate in the end,” said Kerry. “What we’re pushing for is to get him to come and do that, and it may require that there be increased pressure on him of various kinds.”

Kerry is always in favor of negotiating, and his willingness to talk with Assad is nothing new. As a Senator, he visited Damascus, over objections from the Bush administration, in December 2006. (Kerry was in favor of negotiating with hostile foreign regimes behind the president’s back before he was against reminding hostile foreign governments about the U.S. Constitution).

Moreover, in 2010 Kerry expressed the “absolute” conviction that if we engage in “carefully calibrated diplomacy. . .Syria will play a very important role in achieving a comprehensive peace in the region.” The Obama administration shared this foolish conviction.

Does this mean we shouldn’t negotiate with Assad now? Not necessarily.

More than 200,000 Syrians have died in the civil war while jihadists of various stripe (including ISIS) have thrived in the chaos. Moreover, the current approach of the U.S. — occasional bombing of ISIS and talking about training a relatively small number of non-jihadist rebels — offers no chance of success, either in terms of ending the conflict or defeating ISIS.

Under these circumstances, negotiations shouldn’t be ruled out.

As Kerry suggests, meaningful negotiations require pressure on Assad. Kerry didn’t identify the kind of pressure he has in mind.

In my view, only increased military pressure has any serious chance of success. As long as the war continues as it has, Assad’s incentives will remain as they are — insufficient to cause him to bargain seriously. Nor will the prospect of 5,000 to 10,000 non-jihadist rebels one day taking the field against ISIS cause Assad to rethink his position.

U.S. military intervention is a different story. Deploying our air force to deprive the regime of its ability to strike the opposition through the air might cause Assad to reevaluate. It would, in any case, decrease his ability to inflict casualties. And it would probably boost the non-jihadists, not to the point where they will tip the balance, but perhaps to the point where they can remain in the field.

Is this the kind of “pressure” Kerry has in mind? I doubt it. Ever since it refused to enforce its “red line” against Assad’s use of chemical weapons, the Obama administration has been committed to non-intervention, in the direct military sense, against Assad.

What “pressure,” then, is Kerry referring to? My guess is that he’s talking about pressure from Iran, Assad’s key backer in the civil war. Such pressure would be exerted as part of the “grand bargain” Obama is said to be seeking with the mullahs.

I consider the “grand bargain” a pipe dream. This is especially true where Syria is concerned. It’s possible to imagine short-term cooperation between the U.S. and Iran when it comes fighting ISIS in Iraq. We share, or at least perceive, a common interest with Iran in propping up the current Iraqi government.

When it comes to Syria, Iran’s interest is in maintaining Assad in power and in as strong a position as possible. Thus, it has no incentive to pressure Assad to compromise his position, which is — or should be — the goal of any negotiations the U.S. participates in.

Magical thinking is the unifying theme of Kerry’s foreign policy thinking, as well as Obama’s. You had to believe in the tooth fairy to think, as Kerry and Obama did in 2010, that Assad would help us achieve “comprehensive peace” in the Middle East. And you have to believe in her to imagine, as Kerry and Obama do now, that Iran will play something like that role in 2015.


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