WISHFUL THINKING is the essence of Barack Obama’s Syria policy. In lieu of decisive action, the president opted for brave words. He has drawn red lines that he wasn’t willing to enforce. With no strategic interests at stake, he saw no reason to expend resources on mere humanitarian concerns. In an explicit break with the past decade’s neoconservative interventionism, he has chosen a policy of “realist” restraint.
This amoral policy of malleable principles and unsentimental reserve should warm the heart of any “realist.” But a recent issue of The New York Times carries a curious indictment by two luminaries of the “realist” school: Stephen Walt of Harvard and Gordon Adams of the American University. The authors deride Obama for basing his Syria policy on a wish and a prayer: “A wish that President Bashar al-Assad would leave and a prayer that the ‘moderate’ Syrian opposition would be more than it is.”
It would be brave for “realists” to admit that their prescriptions yielded a disaster: absent a deterrent, Assad bombed his opponents with impunity; the repression and slaughter precipitated a mass exodus; and with the US a mere spectator, Russia and Iran stepped in to shore up their ally. Meanwhile ISIS remains entrenched and blowback has reached Western capitals.
But “realists,” like their neoconservative counterparts, rarely admit error. They can, however, be relied upon to compound mistakes.
Walt and Adams are not concerned that Obama’s actions failed to match his rhetoric; their concern is that his words failed to live down to his inaction. They seem unsure, however, whether Obama is a dithering Hamlet or an intransigent Coriolanus. Shortly after deriding his debility, they admonish him against pursuing “decisive victory.” They next describe Russia’s murderous intervention in Syria as “the first glimmer of hope for ending the quagmire.”
But the hope, we learn, is based on a wish and a prayer: a wish that Putin reform Assad, and a prayer that he lead the coalition to victory over ISIS.
These ideas represent the “realist” tendency resurgent in Washington today. They merit closer scrutiny. They have many purveyors, but none more significant than Stephen Walt: the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University, author of highly regarded books on foreign affairs, frequent contributor to establishment journals like Foreign Policy and Foreign Affairs. His book, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, co-authored with the other towering figure of the realist pantheon, John Mearsheimer, was a bold and necessary contribution to the debate over US Middle East policy. The controversy surrounding The Israel Lobby might have cost Walt some of his audience inside the Beltway. But his intellectual mark on foreign policy realists remains palpable. Walt, in short, is the avatar of foreign policy realism: to engage with him is to engage with contemporary realism.
Briefly, realism is an international relations paradigm that sees states as the main unit of analysis, assumes that all states are self-interested, and emphasizes the anarchic (as opposed to hierarchic) character of the international system, which, according to realists, motivates states to maximize power so that their survival is not dependent on the uncertain support of others.
The narrow aperture of “national interest” through which realists view international affairs mandates a combination of amnesia and myopia. Until recently, realists could legitimately be proud of the fact that they had opposed the Iraq war and foreseen the subsequent disaster. But the fact that they invoke the Iraq precedent to argue against involvement in Syria suggests they were right for the wrong reason. Iraq wasn’t at war when we invaded in 2003; Saddam Hussein’s worst atrocities were over a decade behind him, he was disarmed and contained, and there was no humanitarian urgency. In Syria, the state is on a rampage; it is using conventional and unconventional weapons in a systematic campaign of terror; it has used torture and rape on an industrial scale. (Unlike Western “anti-imperialists,” “realists” don’t deny the scale of Syria’s humanitarian crisis.)
The question in Syria is not whether to start a war, but how to end one. The relevant analogy is Bosnia, not Iraq. Except the realist response to Bosnia was the same as the realist response to Iraq, same as the realist response to Syria. The response is a priori, regardless of the context.
Walt confirms this in a recent article for Foreign Policy, grandly introduced as: “A realist grapples with his doubts on intervention in Syria.” As an admirer of Walt’s scholarship, I read the article with high expectations. In a debate with me in February 2014, Walt had opposed a no-fly zone and suggested that it won’t be the worst outcome if Assad were to reassert authority and contain the conflict within Syria’s borders. Assad failed, but in his determination to regain control, he used air power to kill tens of thousands. Millions fled. The conflict spilled across borders and ISIS rudely entered the fray. A reappraisal is therefore in order.
But Walt quickly dashes such expectations by declaring that his “original judgment” — a judgment reached in February 2012, before the massacres in Houla, Darayya, Bayda and Baniyas; before the gassing of Eastern Ghouta; before the siege of Yarmouk; before the barrel bombs; before the industrial scale torture; before ISIS — “was correct.” His only concession to the quarter million dead and 11 million displaced is to reiterate the judgment “uncomfortably.”
Realism’s problem is not just its amoral disdain for humanitarian concerns, but also its parochialism and dogmatic unreason. Walt says a no-fly zone in Syria would not have been in the US interest. But surely the creeping instability in a strategically important region, the growing influence of Russia and Iran, the mounting anger of regional allies, the massive refugee crisis, the xenophobic backlash, the rise of the far right — all of it foreseen — couldn’t be in the US interest either?
Walt says that a no-fly zone would not have been effective because “it would not have driven Assad from power quickly.” But the aim of the no-fly zone was always civilian protection, not regime change. Walt concedes its humanitarian potential, but rejects it based on its unlikelihood to deliver a political end that he has himself imputed to it. Here too he errs because he ignores the possibility that without air power, Assad would lose his impunity and would be more amenable to negotiation.
To his considerable misjudgments, Walt adds another by using the jihadi bogeyman as an argument against a no-fly zone. He repeats the cliché (common among Western journalists who recycle regime propaganda) that Assad is holding Islamist hordes at bay and, contrary to evidence, suggests that there are no moderates among Assad’s opponents. He cites the example of the failed US train-and-equip program to deride the notion that, with American support, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) could have turned the tide of the war.
But Walt seems unaware that far from serving as a bulwark against jihadis, the regime has avoided confrontation with ISIS in all but 6 percent of its military engagements. Indeed, it has objectively aided ISIS by bombing its opponents among Syria’s nationalist rebels. He also ignores the fact that the US plan to assemble a Syrian proxy force failed because it was aimed primarily at ISIS and al-Nusra; to qualify for the program, recruits had to guarantee that they wouldn’t use their training or equipment against the regime.
Walt opposes arming Syrian rebels because he believes they are no more likely to fight than the Iraqi Army (IA) or the Afghan National Army (ANA). However, he ignores the fact that the IA and the ANA have fared poorly because they are fighting highly motivated insurgencies. Their analogue in Syria is not the FSA but the regime army. Rebels made major advances against the regime this year despite the arms embargo and the disparity in forces. Indeed, with the recent supply of TOW missiles from regional allies, they were able to beat back a major offensive by the combined forces of the regime, Hezbollah, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and the Russian Air Force.
But if doctrinal realism is proof against facts, its sense of proportion is even muddier. In the most astonishing statement in his “reappraisal,” Walt compares Syria favorably to Libya, which, in his reckoning, demonstrated “that only thing worse than a truly awful government is no government at all.” The trouble in Libya, according to Walt, was “early US intervention.” True, Libya is a mess, but it isn’t a catastrophe on the scale of Syria. The folly in Libya was not early intervention — which even a year later 75 percent of Libyans supported — but hasty disengagement, which left a nascent state vulnerable to domestic and foreign interference. With a UN stabilization force, things might have turned out differently; without the intervention, Libya would look more like Syria.
Deus Ex Machina
“When facts change” — the great economist John Maynard Keynes is supposed to have said — “I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” We needn’t have to ask a realist: the answer precedes the problem. To keep their minds unchanged, realists change facts instead. For realists (as for “anti-imperialists”) deus ex machina has arrived as ISIS. If the realist approach was beginning to look ludicrous, ISIS brings new opportunities for misdiagnosis; if existing prescriptions were bad, there is always room for worse.
Walt and Adams end their aforementioned broadside by telling Obama to “get down to the business of statecraft.” He should join forces with Russia and pressure regional allies to “focus on the Islamic State today and leave other concerns for later.” But in the next line they admit: “Russia’s main aim at the moment is bolstering Mr. Assad by attacking various anti-regime forces and leaving others to deal with the Islamic State.” In other words, if Russia weren’t what it is, and if its concerns weren’t what they are, it would make an ideal ally.
The curious fascination with Vladimir Putin is of a piece with realism’s anti-democratic predilection. Russia is now being seen as a vehicle for the solution that Obama failed to implement: the restoration of Assad. Words like diplomacy are used to detract from the fact that while the US remains indifferent to the fate of Syrians, Russia is actively shaping the field to its advantage. Given sufficient time, Russia would have weakened or destroyed the insurgency, ensuring a pro-Assad outcome. All the same: the authors remind the president, who insists on seeing Russia for what it is rather than for what it could be: “We are past the Cold War.”
It isn’t clear, however, if realists are past the Cold War. Elsewhere Adams has inexplicably used the refugee crisis to buttress his case for courting Assad; Walt meanwhile has made a curious case for treating ISIS as an actual (though minor) revolutionary state that can be contained. The former ignores the fact that close to 70 percent of the refugees are fleeing Assad, whose forces are responsible for over 95 percent of all civilian deaths in Syria; the latter appears willing to cede ISIS, a murderous totalitarian movement, the rights of a state just so that it can become amenable to a realist resolution. There is little chance that either approach will succeed; there is high probability that they will make things worse.
Walt and Adams’s analytical failures are rooted in the same oversight: for them Syrians either don’t exist or don’t matter. It’s all a game of thrones.
Philip Gordon, one of Obama’s key former Middle East advisors and whose views Walt endorses, demonstrates how doctrinal realism can lead into these kind of intellectual cul-de-sacs. In a recent article for Politico — a bizarre potpourri of false claims, straw men, tortuous logic, and historical amnesia — Gordon argues against a no-fly zone, lumps ISIS with the “Syrian opposition,” ignores the successful coordination with Kurds and the FSA in Kobane, and invokes the Bosnia precedent to advocate against pressuring Assad. The US must allow Iran and Russia to preserve their core interests, he writes, so that it can achieve its own: ending the violence. It must avoid doing what it already isn’t doing: give Syrians the means to defend themselves. Like Walt and Adams, he prescribes “negotiations,” but appears innocent of the concept of leverage; like them, he also appears oblivious to the Syrian people’s existence.
When Syria was a political issue, realists responded without imagination; now that it has become a “security” issue, they are viewing it with blinkers. Because ISIS is the primary concern for the US, they assume it should be for Syrians too. Their pragmatic solution to the Syrian dilemma is to court Assad to defeat or contain ISIS — and they are surprised when Syrians don’t jump at the opportunity to ally with their main tormentor against what for them is an ugly but manageable threat. They seem oblivious that were ISIS to vanish tomorrow, the party to the conflict responsible for 95 percent of the civilian deaths would still be in power — armed, dangerous, and unaccountable. Nor do they understand that in making Assad’s survival conditional on his usefulness against ISIS, they give him an incentive to preserve the group, rather than destroy it and make himself dispensable. Having learned nothing from the disastrous consequences of America’s support for repressive dictatorships during the Cold War, they want to regress to the troglodyte world of dungeons and dictators, condemning Syrians once again to totalitarian rule (albeit now through Russian hands).
Gore Vidal once shared an anecdote about a Marxist friend who, in response to a query about his political beliefs, said: I know all the answers, but I’ve forgotten what the questions were. This also describes the realist approach. What they consider immortal ideas are really zombie nostrums — invulnerable to falsification, they march on heedless of reality’s fatal blows. Realism might have had something useful to tell us about interstate rivalries, but it is inadequate to the task of addressing civil or transnational conflicts in the post–Cold War era. But instead of recognizing these limitations, realists construct versions of reality that are amenable to realist solutions. They ignore any fact that complicates their analysis or resists their formulae. In this sense, realism is not so much a crime against morality (indeed, realists pride themselves on their amoral pragmatism) as a crime against reason. Given its narrow ambit, parochial concerns, and disdain for reality, it is as obsolete as the Westphalian system in which it is rooted. The divine right of kings today exists only in history books and fantasy fiction; realism can perhaps take its place alongside them, as an Old World artifact or a nostalgic surrealism.