OWL’S HEAD, Maine — President Obama's key foreign policy focus these days is the Ukraine, where military confrontation between Ukrainian soldiers and pro-Russian activists increases daily. Whether the next step will involve undisguised Russian troops moving across Ukraine's eastern border or further devolution into civil war, the only certainty is that the crisis will worsen.
US and Russia on opposite sides of a civil war in a European country of nearly 50 million people? Russian troops marching into a sovereign nation in the center of Europe? Nightmares no one could have imagined in the early 1990s when more than four decades of a nuclear-rattling Cold War suddenly evaporated. Or even just a few months back when Russian President Putin rightly reveled in the Sochi glow.
The Ukraine is not the most dangerous place in today's messy world. Nor is it the place where Obama most needs to be pro-active.
That place is Syria, which Obama or someone must move to control before it drags its far bigger neighbor Iraq into the maelstrom. Dexter Filkins, a correspondent for The New Yorker, with long experience in the Middle East, just returned from a month in Iraq, where, he writes, "the sectarian violence has returned, with terrifying intensity."
Iraq, he reports, is as embroiled in sectarian Sunni-Shia violence as it was at the height of its civil war in 2006. In 2006, the US had 150,000 troops in Iraq and was able, with some skill and much luck, to contain the civil war.
With an essentially non-existent Syrian-Iraqi border, al-Qaeda and its allies have a safe-haven as they spread their rule through Sunni-dominated Anbar province where the two largest cities, Ramadi and Falluja -- all too familiar names to those who remember the Iraq war -- have been taken over by an al-Qaeda splinter group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
But as the Syrian civil war moves inexorably to undermine Iraq, Obama continues to create a false dichotomy in which the US has only two choices in Syria: stay out or go all in. In a recent interview with David Remnick of The New Yorker, Obama claimed that the only alternative to his do-nothing policy in Syria would be "an effort in size and scope similar to what we did in Iraq."
This simplistic all-or-nothing approach to Syria has prevailed even as an increasingly large number of Sunni jihadists continue to radicalize much of the opposition to the Assad regime; the fact that even the extremists occasionally fight amongst themselves is no cause for celebration.
There are several severe threats to US national interests from the Syrian civil war merging with one in Iraq and engulfing its neighbors. It's not the humanitarian crisis, despite President Obama's irrelevant rhetorical question in one interview, "How do I weigh tens of thousands who have been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?"
It's rather the further radicalization of the on-going Sunni-Shia split. An ex-State Department official with direct experience in the former states that made up Yugoslavia reports that the Muslims in independent Kosovo are becoming increasingly radical.
Yugoslav Muslims were among the most secular and integrated Muslims anywhere. No longer. An anti-western element has captured younger Muslims worldwide. Pakistan's growing radicalization is not an isolated case. And while we shake our heads at the Egyptian revolution — which once seemed so promising and now has led to a country more authoritarian than the one Mubarak ran — a military-led government may at least keep Egypt from civil war.
The failed state of Afghanistan, controlled by the Taliban, was itself no direct threat to the US in 2001. But providing a safe-haven to al-Qaeda paved the way for 9/11.
Failed states stretching from the Mediterranean to Iran's border dwarf that threat; they will breed and conceal hundreds of jihadists groups and tens of thousands of al-Qaeda wannabes. If even a small fraction bent on taking the perverted step to martyrdom look westward to mimic Osama bin Laden and his original comrades, Europe would be more easily threatened, but the US would be directly in their sights too.
Beyond the threat of terrorism, an unending Syrian conflagration entangling its Arab neighbors would have economic implications for the west. As the sea of instability widens, Saudi Arabia would not be exempt. With the US economic recovery sufficiently fragile, and Europe’s almost non-existent, further disruption of energy resources could kick western economies back into severe recession.
Obama has ignored the Syrian civil war since it began three years ago, believing at first — and later just hoping — that Assad would be overthrown.
When John Kerry was appointed Secretary of State, suggestions that he focus on Syria were set aside in favor of a dedication to Israel and Palestine.
When it was clear, after the Syrian red line fiasco, that Obama was not going to take any serious steps to reinforce those fighting against Assad, the idea was advanced that Obama work with the Russians to move towards a coalition government in Syria that would even include Assad for a limited period of time.
That moment too has gone. The rhetorical question whether Obama has any strategic, long-term vision is as relevant as ever. It is clear Obama has drifted into his lame duck phase, which presumably will extend for the rest of his presidency. His successor will face a rejuvenated al-Qaeda in a collapsing Arab heartland.
Such a jihadist haven spread across Syria and much of western Iraq is not in Russia's national interest either. Their Muslim populations in Chechnya, and further east, are radicalizing. Putin's support for Assad has outlived its usefulness.
Negotiations with Putin on Syria should be our top priority: work with us to find a solution in Syria before we all lose. And for playing a winning role there, we'll minimize western reaction to a pro-Russian outcome in the Ukraine, something our western European allies would readily buy into.
Machiavellian? Of course. That's what successful super powers do. What they don't do is go blundering along in a naive effort to support democracy around the world. Nor do they avert their eyes when faced with difficult situations that have serious long-term ramifications for international stability. They try instead to confront international crises head-on in an effort to prevent a considerably more dangerous world down the road.
Mac Deford is retired after a career as a Foreign Service officer, an international banker, and a museum director. He lives at Owls Head, Maine and still travels frequently to the Middle East.