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Article posted: 2/27/2013 5:00 AM

When doing nothing is a policy

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By Richard Cohen

In the movie "Lawrence of Arabia," the attempt to unite the Arabs comes apart in Damascus. Lawrence bangs on his desk with the butt of his gun to bring the assembly to order, but to no avail. Chaos erupts. Now something similar is happening in Syria. A mountain of dead (70,000 or so), not to mention an approaching regional blood bath, suggests that once again things are coming apart. Still, life does not exactly imitate art. Lawrence of Arabia at least tried to do something. Barack of D.C. just sat on his hands.

Actually, he sat on his polling numbers. The president's refusal to do anything material to end the Syrian civil war is a policy long suspected of having two elements -- fear of blowback and fear of the nightly news. Now comes a book from a one-time administration insider who bluntly and altogether convincingly outlines the role domestic political considerations played in the White House's approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The goal of policymakers was "not to make strategic decisions but to satisfy public opinion." Syria, it seems, has been no exception.

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The former insider is the resplendently credentialed Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, life member of the Council on Foreign Relations and, most pertinently, former senior adviser to the late Richard Holbrooke, President Obama's special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. In that capacity, Nasr says he saw the almost daily humbling of Holbrooke, a volcano of a diplomat who was forever erupting ideas, plans and strategies -- almost always to no avail. In his telling, the White House was some sort of high school cafeteria where Holbrooke was always being shunned and given the silent treatment. He blames "a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisers whose turf was strictly politics" for this. Mean Girls, not the Wise Men, made American policy.

Nasr set down his views in a book called "The Dispensable Nation." It will be published in April, but samizdat copies of it are already being circulated. In a sense, the book only confirms the general impression that Obama is a man without a foreign policy. He had naive aspirations -- a world to be changed by the transformative power of a good speech -- but no clear path to achieve anything. Nasr describes his dismay when the surge in Afghanistan was announced in tandem with a pullout date. In his head, Secretary of State John Kerry, the new implementer of Obama's contradictory policy, must now hear a reprise of the question he once asked about his own war: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam?"

Nasr's regional specialty was Afghanistan and Pakistan. But the thrust of what he says supports the view that Obama shied from intervening in Syria out of domestic political considerations. A president who was campaigning as the peace candidate -- out of Iraq and, soon, Afghanistan, too -- could not risk anything bold in Syria. The country fell into the margin of error. "It is not going too far to say that American foreign policy has become completely subservient to tactical domestic political considerations," Nasr writes.

Boldness is what the situation in Syria demanded. A civil war that could have been contained has, instead, become a sprawling, regionwide bar fight. Arms could have been shipped to the insurgents; a no-fly zone could have been imposed. Much could have been done. Instead, Obama merely called for Bashar al-Assad to go and, for some reason he, like Eric Cantor or somebody, remains immovable.

The stakes here are enormous. Lebanon teeters, swamped with refugees. Jordan, too, is overwhelmed. The Kurds in Syria's north may, as they have in nearby Iraq, establish an autonomous zone -- and Turkey will not be pleased. The jihadists are on the move, hungry for Syria's vast store of chemical weapons. Israel watches, nervously. What if Hezbollah gets its hands on chemical weapons? An Obama administration, afraid of blowback, may well have allowed the Middle East to blow apart.

The battle for Damascus is now engaged. The war next month enters its third year, a humanitarian crisis that has been permitted to fester under the rubric of foreign policy realism. But another realism is now apparent: Inaction has bred the manufacture of orphans -- a carnage, a horror, a reprimand to inaction. Life imitates art. Damascus is where it all came apart in "Lawrence of Arabia." Damascus is where it is coming apart in reality.

Richard Cohen's email address is cohenr@washpost.com.

© 2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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