Obama Cleverly Leading from Behind — Again

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Free Syrian Army fighters shout "Allahu Akbar" near Deraa in this still image taken from a video obtained by Reuters May 17.

The quiet coalition has come together to reverse the decline of the opposition rebel forces in Syria, according to this nice front-pager in Wednesday’s Washington Post.  Much like in the case of Libya, the Obama Administration is hanging back and letting the local “market” determine his military response.  He simply refuses to take the strategic lead, which is frustrating to many and yet decidedly clever on his part.

To me, this is the Obama Doctrine: respond to local demand for U.S. crisis-response services rather than — in typical American fashion — pushing our way to the front of the line, bossing everyone, and then finding ourselves alone on the postwar backside.

It violates one of my key strategic principles (borrowed from the Israelis), which is, Whenever possible, speed the killing. If you know there is violent terrain to be covered between here and the outcome you seek, it’s better to speed the conflict along, accepting the killing dynamic (always stunningly small compared to past wars – let’s be brutally honest), and then grab control of the postwar.

But the problem for the United States has been, as of late, that stepping up in this fashion simply earns us near-complete ownership of the postwar, which we’re not well suited for in temperament (our expectations, especially on democracy, are always fantastically impatient and unrealistic) nor approach (our nation-building simply sucks, given its ahistoric and completely backasswards belief that you build a government first and then hope an economy follows).  Frankly, the ambitious regional types are always better suited for this, because they know the landscape, they’re appropriately greedy in an economic/investment sense, and they’re unfussy on the political developments (which take time, duh!).

But Obama, in my opinion, continues to display considerable wisdom here (as opposed to his cartoonishly clumsy “strategic pivot” to East Asia). The region’s anti-Iran coalition (Saudis, other GCC, Turkey in its deviously clever manner) are all ready and willing to move on Syria, so the U.S. does not and should not lead this process – just enable it here and there.  Those nations should fund this and, by doing so, logically own the aftermath.  If you want a stable postwar Syria, you want highly incentivized local pillars pushing their way to the front of the line.

Beyond all that, there is great logic regarding the White House’s quiet concentration on Syria right now and doing its best to keep Israel from striking Iran.  When Assad goes, there goes much of the threat of Iran retaliating to Israeli strikes by turning on its regional proxies (Wikistrat, my massively multiplayer online consultancy, just ran that war-game).  That development alone should cool Israel’s heels just enough for the unfolding Western embargo on Iranian oil (all those loaded tankers with nowhere to go) to have maximum effect.

In sum, a weak U.S. hand well-played to date.  Yes, Assad’s fall may result in plenty of bloodletting and perhaps even the dismemberment of the country.  And yes, this approach drags out the killing versus speeding it up.  But there is no indication that it results in more killing, and there’s plenty of reason to believe the U.S. will be greatly advantaged by the resulting regional correlation of forces, meaning a solidly positive long-term outcome at a very low price.