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From Cairo to Geneva, Obama steps back from Mideast

U.S. President Barack Obama walks from his residence to the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, September 10, 2013. REUTERS/Jason
U.S. President Barack Obama walks from his residence to the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, September 10, 2013. REUTERS/Jason

By David Rohde

It started as "a new beginning" and ended as "America is not the world's policeman."

Between President Barack Obama's historic 2009 address to the Islamic world in Cairo to his address to the American people on Syria last week, Obama has zigged and zagged on Mideast policy, angering supporters and detractors alike.

But he has stuck to a clear pattern: reduce American engagement, defer to regional players and rely on covert operations to counter terrorism.

The administration has had its achievements. It revived Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and its new agreement with Russia will likely remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons arsenal. To the delight of Americans outside the Beltway and dismay of mandarins inside it, Obama is testing the premise that the United States can walk away from the Middle East.

The agreement with Russia is the latest example. In a chaotic 24-day period recounted in this Wall Street Journal piece, the administration's de facto policy in Syria has shifted from "Assad must go" to "Assad's chemical weapons must go."

There will be ups and downs in the implementation of the agreement but Assad will likely carry it out. After narrowly avoiding American strikes, he will not want to risk it again. Throughout the two-and-a-half-year war, Assad has proven adept at carefully increasing or decreasing the level of violence he uses, depending on the level of international outcry it provokes.

Russian President Vladimir Putin wisely agreed to the Geneva deal before the release of Monday's U.N. report finding that Syria's government was, in fact, responsible for the August 21 attack. The report will cause an initial outcry — and then die out.

As the Geneva framework is implemented, Assad will simply use conventional weapons — and continuing conventional military support from Russia and Iran — to remain in power. He does not need chemical weapons to crush the opposition.

Overwhelming American opposition to "another Iraq" means there is now virtually no chance of a future American military intervention in Syria. If Obama was ever going to use force, it was in the immediate aftermath of the chemical weapons attack.

But in one sign of Obama's decision to step back from the region, he framed an attack on Syria as an effort to deter the use of chemical weapons, not end the killing. The president's lofty rhetoric of Cairo — "these are not just American ideas; they are human rights" — became the realpolitik of Syria — "It is beyond our means to right every wrong."

While Obama described any attack as a "limited strike," there was clearly a secondary military goal. Tomahawk cruise missiles might have destroyed Assad's air force — and potentially shifted momentum in the conflict.

In the wake of the deal with Russia, Assad supporters were thrilled and rebels deflated. In the months ahead, jihadists will only grow more powerful in the Syrian opposition. Moderates who argued that the United States and Europe would intervene on their behalf have been undermined.

Assad's strategy was to turn the conflict into a battle with Sunni fundamentalists, not an opposition movement seeking democracy. He has won.

On Saturday, members of the more moderate Syrian opposition called for more Arab and Western military support. The statement received little attention in the United States, where both the far left and far right have embraced the idea that the Syrian opposition is entirely made up of jihadists.

In an essay last week, Khalid Saghieh, a Lebanese journalist, noted the failure of Syria's opposition to overcome comparisons to Iraq or capture the imagination of Americans.

"The revolutionaries of Syria appear in this game to be effective subalterns," he wrote. "Those who do not have a voice and who can't speak to Western academic circles."

Arwa Damon, a CNN correspondent, was blunter in a tweet following Obama's Syria address.

"missing from #syria debate is how we ended up in world w/such lost moral compass & so many utterly desensitized 2 sheer suffering of others."

Four years after Obama's Cairo address, it is stylish in the United States to dismiss the Middle East as hopeless. It is deemed pragmatic to declare American influence "limited" and view the region as a choice between autocrats and jihadists.

Trusting autocrats — from Assad's ruling clique to Egypt's generals to the Saudi royal family — to sort out a backward region relieves Americans from having any obligation to act.

In Cairo, Obama was not proposing more Iraq-style ground invasions in the Middle East. He talked about the United States working with moderates to find common values between the Islamic world and the United States.

In Syria, that common ground has disappeared. History may judge Obama's platitudes in Cairo as his mistake. Or it may view his reaction to Syria as a time when an opportunity to back moderates was lost.

I hope for the former — and deeply fear the latter.

(The opinions expressed are the author's own.)

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