Opinion

The Great Debate

Is this Obama’s ‘malaise’ moment?

Obama addresses the White House Summit on Working Families in Washington

Malaise is back.

President Barack Obama’s situation is getting perilously close to President Jimmy Carter’s in 1979.

Americans see little evidence of an economic recovery, more and more workers are giving up hope of ever finding a job, the burden of student loan debt — now larger than credit-card debt — is crushing the hopes of young people, the president’s signature achievement, healthcare reform, is broadly unpopular, our borders are overrun by migrant children, Iraq is falling apart, Syria and Ukraine are in turmoil and the president seems hapless and ineffectual.

“Malaise” was the term used in 1979 to describe the deep pessimism Americans felt about the way things were going in the country.  That year, inflation was soaring, unemployment was rising, the United States faced a debilitating energy crisis, a tax revolt had broken out, Americans were waiting in long gas lines, and Iran had a revolution, further roiling the Middle East.

Carter seemed hapless and ineffectual. When the president addressed the nation on July 15, 1979, he appeared to blame the American people. Carter described “a crisis of confidence,” saying, “We see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.”

Support for Carter was so low that he was nearly overthrown by a challenge in his own party from Senator Edward M. Kennedy. The voters fired Carter in 1980, replacing him with a man who would have been difficult to elect in any year but 1980. But Ronald Reagan offered what the country desperately wanted after four years of Carter — strong, decisive leadership.

Obama’s impossible choices on Iraq

Volunteers who have joined the Iraqi Army to fight against the predominantly Sunni militants, chant slogans in Baghdad

Iraq was a bold U.S. experiment in nation-building. It turned out to be a flop.

That’s what we’re learning as we watch what the United States achieved there evaporate after nine years of war, after nearly 4,500 Americans were killed, 32,000 wounded and $800 billion in U.S. taxpayer money spent.

When George W. Bush first ran for president in 2000, he expressed contempt for nation-building. It was a point he made in rally after rally. “I’m worried about the fact I’m running against a man,” Bush said, “who uses ‘military’ and ‘nation-building’ in the same sentence.”

What’s happening in Iraq? Some smart takes to help figure it out.

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The Iraq created in large part by the United States after the 2003 invasion appears to be collapsing.

The U.S. military disabled Saddam Hussein’s forces in short order. Then the straightforward part of the war ended. The American-led Coalition Provisional Authority made some fateful choices soon after Saddam’s government collapsed: to disband the Iraqi Army — one of Saddam’s main methods of keeping the nation together — and remove all Baathists from the government. Since the Baathists previously had a monopoly on power, they were the only ones who knew how to keep the country running.

Those factors, among many others — the withdrawal of the restraining hand of the U.S. military, a Shi’ite-dominated central government that has squeezed out the minority Sunni, and a largely sectarian Syrian civil war across an undefended border — are now playing out as Islamist insurgents sweep across the country in a massive offensive that has encountered minimal resistance from the reincarnation of the Iraqi Army.

How — and why — the U.S. must support Iraq

Mourners carry the coffin of a victim killed by a suicide bomber who blew himself up inside a tent filled with mourners in Baghdad, during a funeral in Najaf A disaster is unfolding in Iraq. It is in part a result of the failed Syria and broader Middle East policies pursued by the West in the past four years.

Insurgents reportedly led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) (also known as “ISIS”) have occupied Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and may be planning to push further south to the capital, Baghdad. ISIL, a largely Sunni jihadist group more radical than al Qaeda, seeks to establish an independent caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria.

President Barack Obama said Thursday that he doesn’t “rule out anything” when it comes to U.S. involvement in the region, and some political analysts are already predicting possible U.S.-led drone strikes or even air strikes.

America’s nonintervention is a vote for Syria’s Assad

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Many Syrians who voted for Bashar al-Assad in today’s presidential elections did so in the belief that the alternative to the current regime is a takeover by Islamist radicals.

Increasingly, Western leaders agree. As Ryan Crocker, former U.S. ambassador to Syria, said recently, “As bad as the regime is, there is something worse — which is extreme elements of the opposition.”

This is a cruel irony. It ignores how the United States’ lack of involvement in Syria allowed extremists to flourish in the first place. The question is not whether the Syrian regime is better than Islamist extremism, but how the world can forsake Syrians to suffer oppression by both.

Obama: Ineffectually Challenged

President Barack Obama is in a funk. Americans are coming to see the president as ineffectual. That is a dangerous perception.

Obama’s job approval rating is at risk of dropping below 40 percent. Democrats may lose their majority in the Senate this fall. It may be difficult for the president to accomplish anything during his last two years.

In the March NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, 42 of registered voters say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate endorsed by Obama. Only 22 percent say they would be more likely to vote for Obama’s candidate.

Obama’s options for Syria

On Saturday the United Nations Security Council demanded that Syria’s government and its armed opponents end attacks on civilians, allow the delivery of humanitarian aid across borders and battle lines, and protect minorities. The Security Council also called for the lifting of sieges against civilians and said that it would take additional measures if the two parties did not comply.

Even if fully implemented, this welcome push on humanitarian issues will not end the violence in Syria, or resolve a conflict that has left over 120,000 people dead and one-third of the population displaced. More action is needed if a political solution is to be found and a serious peace process initiated. The American people won’t support deployment of U.S. troops. Russia will veto any new U.N. Security Council resolution with teeth. But Washington should consider other diplomatic, assistance, financial and military options.

Diplomatic options now include formally terminating the U.N. negotiating effort, which has so far failed to reach any kind of agreement, even on an agenda. The U.S., a prime mover behind the talks, could announce that it would reopen them only if President Assad agrees to discuss concrete steps towards a democratic transition, which he has so far failed to do.

The religion-fueled fight in Syria

The second round of peace talks in Geneva between representatives of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Syria and rebel forces has ended with both sides blaming each other for the lack of progress. Beyond the finger-pointing, however, lies a growing danger to the goal of a negotiated settlement. The civil war’s religious divides are widening, making compromise unthinkable.

Representatives of the Syrian regime went to Geneva solely with the hope of convincing the opposition to let President Bashar al-Assad stay in power so he can forge an alliance against jihadist forces fighting in Syria, most notably the al Qaeda affiliates Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Their argument — one that many, including former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, have made — was that Assad is better than any likely alternative.

But the Syrian National Coalition, representing opposition forces, rejected the proposal outright. The coalition, which purports to be a post-Assad transitional government in waiting, has decided, along with Secretary of State John Kerry, that al Qaeda will be dealt with after Assad is gone. Its standing, however, is severely constrained by its lack of political credibility on the ground. It has become little more than a vehicle for Qatar and Saudi Arabia to vie for control of Syrian politics.

Assad’s terror farce at the Geneva talks

Just days before the most recent Syrian peace talks in Geneva began, a report detailing “industrial-scale” killing in President Bashar al-Assad’s prisons revealed the nature of his government. Despite this setback, the regime continues to claim that it is only fighting terrorists.

While their rhetoric is convenient, the reality is that only one side of the Syrian negotiations is actively fighting al Qaeda – the opposition. Though Assad has the capacity to attack extremists, from the spring of 2011 until today he has chosen to target civilians instead.

During two weeks I just spent interviewing Syrians in the southern border towns of Turkey, I found nearly universal opposition to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), the army of foreign jihadists backed by al Qaeda that has now taken over many liberated areas across Northern Syria.

Is there a ‘right’ path for the U.S. in Syria?

Key parties to the conflict in Syria are meeting in Switzerland on Wednesday. The participants have been downplaying expectations that the “Geneva II” peace conference — which will bring together for the first time representatives from the Assad government and various rebel groups along with major international players — will resolve the conflict, or even bring about a ceasefire.

For the U.S. government, the crucial issue at this meeting and beyond is determining if and how to intervene and provide support in a conflict where there may no longer be real “good guys,” or supporters of U.S. national interests, to back. This is particularly important given Washington’s interwoven interests throughout the region — not only in Syria, but in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Turkey and beyond.

U.S. support of the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet Union during the Cold War teaches two valuable lessons for the current Syrian conflict. First, understand who we are helping, what their goals are and how these goals may differ from those of the United States. Second, think in advance about the endgame.

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