Syria, Geneva II, and the Era of "Least Bad Options"

  • photo courtesy of Ebua Libana www.flickr.com/photos/93295353@N00/2295904484
    Jan 22, 2014

    It does not take much by way of prophecy to predict that the Geneva II conference will not achieve any of its stated goals. Assad will not step down, the opposition will remain divided and continue to become more extreme, and outside states will be as divided in their goals as before the meeting.

    Excluded states like Iran will – if anything – pursue their own self-interests in supporting Assad with even more dedication. Key Arab Gulf states – Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE – will continue to fund violent Sunni Islamist factions, and truly dangerous extreme movements like Al Qaeda and ISIS will continue to gain funding and volunteers. The spillover of violence into Lebanon and Iraq will continue, and likely will expand.

    The maxim that any dialogue is better than no dialogue – “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war” – may produce some benefit, although there are times when better understanding does lead to even more hostility. There may be some token humanitarian pledges and concessions, but neither the Assad regime nor much of its opponents will stop funneling or blocking aid to their own respective advantages. Moreover, the sheer scale of the human tragedy in Syria – with more than 20% of its population displaced or refugees – will still present internal problems in a war zone that cannot be solved, and cause problems in neighboring states that cannot adequately cope with the added challenges.

    This mix of pressures makes it equally easy to predict the conference will be a failure even if it does produce some kind of cosmetic declaration or agreement, as so many such conferences do. It also makes it easy to criticize the United States for lack of leadership. Additionally, in today’s bitterly partisan environment, there will be plenty of Americans who will also miss no opportunity to criticize the Obama Administration. Such action is fair game in any democracy; a system of government where even the greatest success can be described as failure by the opposition.

    The Broader Message of the Crisis in Syria

    The situation in Syria does, however, send a much broader message. As Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Bahrain, Iraq, Somalia, the Sudan, and all too many other cases show, there is only so much the United States and other powers can do. It is still all too possible, that the United States could have played a decisive role if it had decisively backed moderate rebel factions in Syria earlier in the crisis, at the time these groups were gaining momentum both politically and militarily. That window of opportunity, however, has long slammed shut.

    Now, the rebel factions that have real power are increasingly extreme, violent, and committed to Salafi goals that most Syrians do not support or want. Assad and his supporters are even more committed to authoritarian rule and violence, tied to Iran, and linked to Hezbollah. The United States has no good options in Syria. It has no allies capable and willing to join it in taking meaningful action to replace Assad, and no idea of what would replace Assad, or the ability to shape a post-Assad Syria.

    The real issue is what can the United States credibly do in cases like Syria – and cases like Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Bahrain, Iraq, Somalia, and the Sudan? Each is sharply different in many ways, but each case presents the fundamental problem that its current politics, stability, and security are driven by internal power struggles that are existential to the point of making politics a “blood sport” for all of the factions involved.

    In every case, the power struggles that have emerged from a failed authoritarian system have left leaders with minimal real experience in peaceful politics and practical governance. Most opposition movements were suppressed, conspiratorial, ideological/religious, and sometimes violent. Political parties were weak, the tolerated tools of the regime, or did not exist. The state abused and bypassed an ineffective rule of law, and either controlled most resources or used crony capitalism to benefit its own supporters and as a political tool.

    Worse, in most cases, authoritarianism and repression had put a cap on deep sectarian, ethnic, tribal, and regional tensions in states where population pressures forced hyper-urbanization and the break up or weakening of traditional structures of social accommodation and stability. This happened at a time when cell phones, the internet, and other social media made it increasingly impossible to limit extremist ideologies and conspiratorial politics just as much – if not more – than it encouraged a real interest in moderate reform, practical politics and development.

    There was no practical basis for democracy in the majority of cases, and elections became a means of exposing a given nation’s divisions and lack of effective leadership. The end result was that post-authoritarian politics threatened to be a grim repetition of the post-colonial period’s history of making democracy into an authoritarian end game of “one man, one vote, one time.”

    In almost every case, massive population growth and real and disguised unemployment had grown steadily in spite of a growing GDP. Youth unemployment had reached a destabilizing crisis level. Income distribution had become steadily less equal. Government investment had failed to keep up with population growth in education, health, infrastructure and other services – crippling structural issues documented all too well in the series of Arab Development Reports issued by the UN Development Program (UNDP).

    Afghanistan and Iraq have shown all too clearly that even de facto U.S. military occupation cannot cope with these internal pressures. The United States cannot bribe the competing factions in any given case with aid to become moderate and work together. It cannot use force to somehow unify them on a lasting basis. It has some political, economic, and military leverage in each case, but this leverage is still remarkably weak when it comes down to a given faction and leader’s survival. Moreover, the deeper forces at work will shape a given nation’s politics, economics, and stability. Even the worst politics and internal violence are as much the symptom as the disease.

    The Lessons of Syria, Geneva II -- Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Bahrain, Iraq, Somalia, the Sudan – and Others to Come

    These are not reasons to avoid conferences like Geneva II, even if they do fail to meet every stated goal. As noted earlier, international dialogue and setting clear U.S. goals can serve a purpose. Even clarifying divisions, problems, and the lack of consensus can help lay the groundwork for more realistic and limited action in the future.

    They are, however, good reasons to back away from taking unrealistic goals seriously, and from the kind of absurd political expectations that far too many raised when the massive political upheavals in the Middle East were called the “Arab Spring.” They are good reasons not to demand instant U.S. political success on a partisan or ideological basis, and see the failure to win that success as a failure in U.S. leadership, some measure of U.S. unwillingness to act, or a symptom of U.S. decline.

    While every case is different, none presents good options, predictable patterns to try to influence, or any near-term probability of leaping from the present mix of tensions and problems to some form of stability and success. For at least the next decade – and probably far longer in several cases – each U.S. Administration will be confronted with the need to deal with ongoing political instability, deep internal structural problems, and uncertainty.

    There will be no “good side” with the power to act, and no “good options” that have predictable mid and long-term results. The United States will have no more ability to suddenly deal with deep internal political instability in states with radically different cultures, critical internal problems, and a lack of any history of stable democratic politics than it did in Vietnam, Angola, the Congo, Central America, Iran, Cuba, and case after other case during the Cold War. No amount of letting hope overcome experience, or forgetting history, will give any Administration a magic wand. No amount of think tank and NGO good intentions and bright ideas will be a substitute for reality.

    None of this, however, means the United States cannot act or play a major role over time. The fact the United States has limited influence in the short term, and limited resources and options, does not mean it should abandon its efforts to help other states over the long term, and serve its own interests in the process.

    There is a good case for honestly stating the limitations to what the United States can do, for dialing back expectation to what the United States can actually achieve, and for accepting that uncertainty and the levels of problems mean that failure will often be the price of any given U.S. policy and action. Limiting U.S. domestic and foreign expectations to the art of the possible within real-world limits is not just the starting point for more effective policies; it is a necessary step in defusing criticism of the United States for failing to do what it cannot do and winning support for what it can.

    The United States will need to focus on each national case, accepting just how different each nation state really is. In most cases, it will have to find the best approach it can to a regime or mix of factions that have many faults and uncertain abilities to achieve or stay in power. The “least bad option” may often mean encouraging regimes with many flaws to evolve and reform, rather than betting on instant democracy or assuming some kind of liberal or middle class dissent or uprising can bring a better outcome than strategic patience. A focus will be needed on the overall welfare and security of the people of a given country, rather than the high level politics of power.

    The United States will need to focus on achieving good results in five to ten years, rather than bad results in a few months. Success means persistent and well-tailored efforts by the U.S. country teams over a period of years. It means using the limited levels of influence the United States actually has in the areas where the United States can do the most good over time, and working with mixes of regime and opposition elements that often have as many flaws as merits. To the extent possible, it also means bipartisan acceptance of time, uncertainty, limited progress, and the possibility of failure. It means risk taking at the embassy and military advisory level, and taking casualties without demanding scapegoats.

    It also means accepting the fact that no state will somehow evolve to become a copy of the United States, and an acceptance of different goals and values. It means working with the UN and institutions like the World Bank to achieve results over time, as well as working with both allies and other states to find credible “least bad options” rather than focusing on doing it our way quickly in ways that can do more harm than good.

    Finally, it means working with the regimes that have not collapsed, particularly partners like Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. All face major challenges, and all have different political systems and values – as well as somewhat different strategic objectives. But, all are states where U.S. action may well be able to help a regime and a nation evolve peacefully over time in ways that do far more to benefit its people than any repetition of the political upheavals that began in 2011, or calls for instant progress in becoming a copy of the United States. It does not take much realism to suggest that working with a partner – for all the compromises and differences involved – is better than working with an unstable mess.

    Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

    Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Anthony H. Cordesman