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Paikin: U.S. Foreign Policy: Libya vs. Syria

July 12, 2011

By Zach Paikin

Many have asked why the White House has adopted such a hard line on Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya while taking a much softer stance on al-Asad’s Syria.

Both regimes have murdered more than 1,000 of their own citizens. Yet the former has a UN-sanctioned NATO military campaign being led against it in the name of the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine while the latter has not dealt with any external military opposition.

Furthermore, in addition to the president of Libya, President Barack Obama — successfully or not — has called for the resignation of the presidents of Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen while failing to demand that Syrian President Bashar al-Asad step down.

Indeed, sanctions have been imposed on al-Asad for his human rights abuses. Yet Gaddafi is viewed as a tyrant while al-Asad has been lauded as a “reformer” within White House circles.

There are many reasons for this difference in policy.

The most basic reason is that the United States cannot afford to open up a fourth military front at the present time. The underfunding of America’s military capabilities since the end of the Cold War has led to an increase in the expense of combat missions when they take place due to their increased length and ineffectiveness. With a debt crisis looming, the U.S. simply cannot keep spending money it doesn’t have.

On a geopolitical level, however, there are more complex reasons. These reasons may revolve around interests on one hand or ideas on the other.

In order to effectively pursue its interests in the Middle East — most notably the smooth transfer of petroleum products from the region to the global market — the United States must ensure regional stability. The latter is inherently tied to regime stability in Syria but not in Libya.

Instability in Libya has very few repercussions on the surrounding region. Gaddafi’s foreign policy has long been inconsistent and incomparable with the foreign policies of other Mid-East states. Add to that the fact that Tripoli is not aligned with Washington and we understand that the U.S. has little to lose if there is regime change in Libya.

Instability in Syria, however, threatens the security of Western allies such as Israel and Jordan. It threatens the security of the latter due to a potential spillover of violence across the Jordan-Syria border. It threatens Israel’s security because a new regime in Syria is more likely to go to war with the former than the current regime is.

Syria’s realpolitik-based foreign policy has been one of its defining traits since Hafez al-Asad assumed the presidency in the early 1970s. The fact that the ruling family belongs to the Alawite minority is one of many incentives it has to put its own survival ahead of other considerations.

A Sunni regime in Damascus, on the other hand, would contribute to an increase in Turkish influence in the Levant at the expense of both the Americans and the American-backed Saudis. (Ankara would have more influence than Riyadh over Damascus due to geographical proximity and to potential leverage over issues related to water and the Kurds. Furthermore, a Sunni regime in Damascus would compete with Riyadh for influence in Lebanon among Lebanese Sunnis more effectively than the current Ba’athist regime can.)

In the field of ideas, however, we may obtain another explanation for why the White House is going soft on Syria: President Obama cannot bring himself to go to war with yet another Muslim state for fear of compromising his ability to “reach out to the Muslim world”.

The President is already having a tough time admitting that the United States is in fact engaged in a war in Libya and has used that as an excuse not to obtain official congressional support for the war, the result of which would be formal recognition of the fact that the United States is at war in Libya. Nor are the drone strikes in Pakistan part of a “war on terror” to fight against “radical Islam” or “jihad” according to the president but rather part of a series of “overseas contingency operations”.

If President Obama is avoiding the use of military force in Syria for reasons related to American interests, then perhaps this would be a demonstration that he has matured since his previous regional foreign policy failures (e.g. abandoning regional allies such as Egypt and Tunisia).

However, if the President is prioritizing the use of his own ideology in the formulation of American foreign policy, then we are likely to see more failures and setbacks for America on the world stage.

This analysis was syndicated from the official blog of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA). Zach Paikin is a research associate at JINSA.

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