President Obama, Pursue The Deal On Syria

President Obama, Pursue The Deal On Syria

An off-the-cuff comment by President Obama about red lines placed him in the current political quagmire on Syria. Thanks to another off-the-cuff remark, this time by Secretary Kerry, Obama has an opportunity to navigate out of this debacle while accomplishing all his objectives.

Obama’s Objectives

Obama’s stated objective in Syria is to “degrade Al-Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons against his own people and uphold the international norm against the use of such weapons in general.” An additional objective, occasionally acknowledged by Obama and his surrogates, is to signal to Iran and the rest of the world that U.S. warnings are credible. A critical domestic objective is to push Congress to take on its responsibility in the declaration of war and addressing international security issues, such as the threat of WMDs. Finally, there is the undiscussed objective of Obama’s legacy — will he become yet another U.S. President who gets the country mired in a poorly thought out war in the Middle East? Or will he earn his Nobel Peace Prize?

Would the military strike accomplish the objectives?

The planned military strike on Syria is unlikely to accomplish any of the above. The degradation of Assad’s capabilities will be limited at best, since the U.S. will only use missiles and target weapons caches that have now been moving around the country for over a month. Far from signaling the credibility of the U.S., this limited strike highlights the extent to which Americans are opposed to international military action, and the growing difficulty of coming to any political agreements between the White House and Congress. These facts are likely to more than offset any concerns by Iran about a future U.S. military strike.

A military strike will definitely lead to significant responses by Syria, Hezbollah, and Iran, possibly with clandestine support from Russia. Widespread violence against U.S. and allies’ interests around the world will inevitably pull Obama into a spiraling conflict in the region, potentially worse than anything the U.S. has faced in recent history.

As for domestic politics, Obama has done the right thing by re-establishing the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches when it comes to military action. However, as Sen. McCain has said, a Congressional vote against a strike on Syria would be catastrophic. Obama has already staked out the position that he has the legal authority to move forward with this attack. If he does so in spite of Congress’ disapproval, he might create a constitutional crisis that he, as a constitutional law expert, would obviously be loath to do. If he acquiesces to Congress’ will, he would be terminally disabling the Executive’s capacity for managing international relations. Russia is already testing those waters by sending a delegation to speak directly to the U.S. Congress, bypassing the Executive altogether.

Would the proposed deal accomplish the objectives?

The proposed deal, on the other hand, accomplishes all those objectives. Forcing Al-Assad to hand over his chemical weapons stockpiles (and presumably establish an international inspection regime) may well disable a far larger quantity of such weapons than a limited U.S. military strike can. Additionally, it would force the international community to take a more active role in policing both Al-Assad and other regimes that might consider using chemical weapons in the future. And it would “save” the military option for later and lock Al-Assad into a carefully-enforced agreement. Any failure to abide by that agreement (hiding chmical stockpiles or by any further chemical attacks) would guarantee a unified international response, likely including military strikes.

President Obama should also maintain the pressure on Congress by taking the proposed agreement — including commitments for punitive steps if Al-Assad fails to uphold his end — to them for ratification. This would signal the unified commitment by American political representatives to achieving the President’s declared foreign policy objectives, while denying Russia the opportunity to meddle in internal U.S. political processes.

Perhaps most important of all, it creates a possibility that has thus far eluded the international community: pursuing a negotiated solution to the Syrian conflict. If Obama pulls off a peaceful solution to the chemical weapons crisis, and starts building on it to get close to resolving the overall conflict, he will have indeed earned his Nobel Prize.

President Obama: through your administrations entire political and diplomatic weight behind establishing this agreement. The American people deserve it, the Syrian people deserve it, and your legacy demands it.


El-Sisi’s Dangerous Gamble

El-Sisi’s Dangerous Gamble

General El-Sisi has called on “honorable Egyptians” to hold massive protests on Friday to give him a popular mandate in the latest “war on terrorism.” This escalation in the conflict between pro- and anti-Morsi groups is a political miscalculation that will backfire on El-Sisi and on Egypt.

When ousted president Morsi was in power, his Muslim Brotherhood (“MB”) group would regularly call for counter-demonstrations against his opponents who were camping out in Tahrir and elsewhere. The opposing camps would meet, inevitably leading to violence and a climbing death toll. Most Egyptians rightly criticized the MB for “placing the matches near the fuel.” Yet, many of those same Egyptians are today cheering for El-Sisi’s repetition of the MB’s mistake.

When the military ousted Morsi, it was in response to millions of Egyptians protesting Morsi’s undemocratic practices and managerial incompetence during his first year in office. Although Morsi was democratically elected, he had worked to systematically dismantle all democratic elements in the state, pack all levels of government exclusively with MB members and supporters, ignore his campaign promises, and place himself above the constitution and the rule of law.

For all intents and purposes, Morsi’s actions rendered unusable the legal mechanisms by which citizens can hold their national leaders accountable in between elections. That left Egyptians with no path towards change other than street demonstrations. And when Morsi responded by loudly declaring that he will defend his presidency “with [his] blood,” and his supporters started amassing in Cairo, the military had no choice but to intervene to prevent a potential bloodbath. That was a legitimate response to the people’s will, to the lack of legal options, and to the imminent danger of the breakout of civil war.

Violence has broken out during the three weeks since Morsi’s ouster, mostly in the lawless Sinai governorate and at a few pro-Morsi sit-ins. Dozens have been killed and a few thousand hurt. But the million or so pro-Morsi demonstrators have remained mostly peaceful. MB leaders and other “Islamists” continue to egg them on, believing that large sit-ins will eventually bring back the MB regime. They have failed to recognize that all they can accomplish is run out the general population’s patience with them and provide an easy excuse for extremists to ratchet up their attacks against the state.

El-Sisi is gambling on receiving another popular mandate through demonstrations, this time to crack down on “violence and terrorism.” This is a dangerous miscalculation for a simple reason: unlike the case of holding the president accountable, there are clear and active laws governing the state’s response to violence. The security forces will find wide support for cracking down on the few armed protesters in Cairo. And the military will be cheered as a national hero if it launches a major campaign to rid Sinai of its festering terrorism camps and pockets of violence. The military can even be called to help secure Cairo against extremist elements by a simple declaration of a state of emergency by the Interim President, Judge Adly Mansour.

El-Sisi’s asking for popular demonstrations prior to taking action implies one thing: he intends to use the military in an extra-judicial crackdown on peaceful protests. That is the only objective for which he has no legal or political cover.

International political entities and donors are already skeptical about the military’s intentions in Egypt. The U.S. has been threatening to withhold over $1B in aid to the Egyptian military. And the IMF has still not approved its $4.8B loan to Egypt, desperately needed to kickstart the economy. However, most international bodies gave El-Sisi the benefit of the doubt in ousting Morsi because of the events that led up to it.

El-Sisi is seeking a similar popular mandate and additional leeway from international observers. He may well receive the former but almost certainly not the latter.

Two developments are likely to happen over the next few days. First, massive pro-military demonstrations will clash with pro-Morsi crowds, potentially leading to widespread bloodshed. And second, the military and security forces will launch an iron fisted campaign to snuff out public support for the MB, perhaps killing hundreds and arresting tens of thousands, many of whom will disappear into military jails, forcing the remaining sympathizers underground.

If El-Sisi’s intention is, as he has stated, to re-establish the rule of law and stability to the nation, this plan will backfire. If his intention is to eradicate opposition, he may succeed in the short term, but will soon have to repeat his actions to deal with the next wave of opposition, likely by the secular youth who still remember the heavy handed rule of the military after Mubarak’s ouster.

In either case, Egypt is about to pay a heavy price for the miscalculations of one very powerful man.