Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


MARCH 2016

Our press and television, preoccupied with domestic politics this year, provides only limited reporting on dangerous situations around the world, among them Syria, Ukraine, Yemen., and Libya. The most urgent is Syria's civil war and disintegration as a state. A massive exodus of refugees seeking a new life in Europe is disrupting its valiant efforts to hold the EU together.

Syria is also the heart of a far larger Middle East crisis. With Turkey to the north, Iraq in the east, Jordan in the south, and Lebanon between it and the Mediterranean, Syria is at the center of regional turmoil that could ignite a larger conflict and entangle military forces of Russia and the United States.

At this writing, a tenuous cease-fire holds among Syria's warring factions. U.N. food convoys are reaching Syrians in rebel enclaves surrounded by government forces. U.S. defense and intelligence officials told Congress they don't believe the cease-fire will endure and that fighting will resume.

The Obama administration has had from 2011 three alternative policies, or options, it could pursue in dealing with Syria's civil war: 1. Let the situation run its course and avoid heavy involvement; 2. Pursue intensive diplomacy to persuade all sides to compromise in the search for peace; 3. Employ low levels of armed intervention to prevent a wider conflict and avoid humanitarian disaster.

Obama employed option one in his first term, restraining Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who proposed doing more. In his second term, Obama changed course and assigned his new secretary, John Kerry, to pursue intensive diplomacy with Moscow and Arab leaders to achieve a cease-fire and negotiate a political settlement. What should Obama do if Kerry's diplomacy fails and civil war resumes?

Syria's crisis began in early 2011 when protesters demanded that President Assad agree to hold elections and permit individual freedom. Their hopes were bolstered when Barack Obama called on Assad to "step down" as president and permit a democratic government to form.

What Obama failed to appreciate was that Russia and Syria have a defense alliance and that Vladimir Putin was not about to see his ally ousted and replaced by a pro-Western government. Obama quickly adopted a "hands-off" policy. Now he and Kerry are engaged In intensive diplomacy with Moscow to avoid a larger conflict.

It's problematic whether a durable period of peace will evolve in Syria this year. It's unlikely that Barack Obama, a lame-duck president, will use U.S. forces to carve out a safe zone for refugees in northern Syria along the Turkish border, advocated by Turkey's government since 2012. Instead, Kerry will continue his diplomacy to find a peaceful settlement. In the meantime, European governments cope with the continuing influx of refugees.

Next January, 2017, how might a new U.S. president deal with Syria, if fighting resumes? If Turkey refuses to accommodate more refugees, and Ankara demands action by the United States and Europe, how would a new president respond?

Judging by the rhetoric of some Republican candidates, we might conclude that, as president, they would build up the armed forces and threaten to use them in Syria, to demonstrate that Washington is reasserting its major role in the Middle East.

Donald Trump says he will make deals with Vladimir Putin. He thinks the Russian leader is just another businessman he can do deals with, instead of recognizing that Putin is bent on restoring Russia's primacy in the Middle East. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio assume that building up military forces will cause all sides to negotiate instead of risking war with the U.S. John Kasich sounds less assertive.

If Hillary Clinton is president in 2017, U.S. policy on Syria will harden. She advocated a more robust policy in Obama's first term, but couldn't persuade him to abandon his hands-off stance. As president, she would chart her own, tougher course and accept that Putin is vigorously pursuing Russia's national interests.

The period until January 2017 will be a crucial test for Obama's policy. Syrian fighters may not wait to resume their war against Assad's regime; ISIS leaders won't hesitate to expand their new foothold in Libya; and neither Russia nor Iran will stand by while we choose a new president. It's a time for sober thinking by presidential candidates about how they would deal with a Middle East crisis.

File last modified on Monday, 10-MAR-2015 10:04 AM EST

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