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Thomas Friedman, Barack Obama, and the Longstanding Tumult in Syria

(Reuters/Omar Sanadiki)

“Had Obama intervened strongly enough in 2013, Syria could have been his Bosnia, a long-running humanitarian disaster that a U.S. president halted after initially dragging his feet.”

It’s always been easy for foreign policy specialists of a skeptical bent to mock Thomas L. Friedman. Between his proselytizing for globalization, his relentless coining of new terms, his support for invading Iraq, and his repeated insistence that Iraq’s future would be decided in “the next six months” (one Friedman Unit), he became an easy target. The twentieth anniversary this year of The Lexus and the Olive Tree, juxtaposing the wonders and worries of the modern world with the lure of the ancient and familiar, provides opportunities for further criticism. In a world still feeling the effects of the 2008 financial crisis, many of the book’s paeans to unleashed global market forces have not aged well.

But there’s a section of the book worth revisiting for other reasons. At the end of his chapter laying out his Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention (the theory that no two countries with a McDonald’s go to war, discredited before the book was even published by NATO’s bombing of Serbia), Friedman imagines a conversation between U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad. The Secretary lectures the strongman on how weak Syria has become without the Soviet Union to support it. Now, he has no choice but to play by American rules, especially the rules of the Golden Straightjacket. “Instead of superpowers, Hafez, there are Supermarkets.” Christopher ends by giving Assad his cell phone (“the latest model from Motorola, linked up with their new Iridium satellite system”) and tells him that while he can call if he wants to do business on Washington’s terms, he should otherwise expect to be ignored. Washington is too busy making the world safe for capitalism to pay attention to Syria.

Friedman’s Assad responds with even more of the slogans that Jacob Weisberg, reviewing the book upon its release, said made him, “sound like Jesse Jackson at a rally.” In the Middle East, “tribal bonds, not corporate bonds, still rule the day,” the dictator tells the diplomat. “Here the iron fist of the ruling tribe, not the hidden hand of the marketplace, still dominates politics.” Assad cannot afford to show any weakness, because if he does, he and his fellow Alawites will be overthrown by Syria’s Sunni majority. He then goes on to mock the U.S. for pretending it doesn’t care about him: “You’ve been here twenty-one times already, and you’ve been to Mexico once.” And he returns the Motorola, warning Christopher, “be careful when you press the SEND button. You never know what might happen…”

Sloganeering and old technology aside, it’s remarkable how prescient this fictional conversation looks two decades later. Syria does indeed keep pulling America back in. Barack Obama, despite his conviction that the United States invested too much blood, treasure and time in the Middle East, was unable to extricate himself. And while Donald Trump may finally pull the last U.S. troops out, the re-rise of ISIS (increasingly likely now that Kurdish fighters beating back Turkish assaults can no longer keep captured jihadists detained) may very well force him (or his successor(s)) to order new deployments. However much Americans may want to live in the Lexus world (maybe now, with climate change always on the agenda, it should be the Tesla world), America can’t stay out of the olive groves for long.

While Bashar al-Assad made some gestures toward modernization after succeeding his father in 2000, a closer inspection would have shown that Bashar was just as committed to holding power as Hafez had been. No one in 2005 seriously doubted that he played a role in the assassination of Rafic Hariri, former Lebanese prime minister and critic of the Syrian occupation of his country. Street protests forced him to withdraw the Syrian troops that had been in Lebanon since 1976. But Syria’s ally Hezbollah was unaffected, and a year later its missile strikes provoked Israel—the Lexus land of the region—into bombing Lebanon in vain. The highest-tech country in the Middle East resorted to high-tech war—and was embarrassed by a terrorist group with much less sophisticated weapons but greater willingness to lose lives on its own side. (Friedman must have had some sense this could happen because his Assad expresses contempt for “All these Israeli boys,” soldiers who “carry their cell phones with them so they can call their Jewish mothers every night.”)

Meanwhile, when George W. Bush decided Saddam Hussein had to go but did not plan for the aftermath of his removal, Assad was able to be both America’s friend and its enemy. While Syria took in suspected terrorists to torture on America’s behalf, Assad feared he would be Bush’s next target, and he secretly supported Al Qaeda in its campaign against U.S. forces. The overthrow of Saddam, the dissolution of the Iraqi army, and the lack of enough coalition troops to stabilize the country all contributed to the rise of ISIS, but Assad deserves part of the blame, too.

Given all this ruthlessness, it was no surprise when, in the early months of the Arab Spring, Assad responded to nonviolent protests against his regime with force. He had no incentive to compromise, and at first he had no reason to fear outside attempts to bring him down. But he underestimated the willingness of his subjects to risk their lives in fighting him. As the brutal crackdown continued, more and more Syrians took up arms, to the point where the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the largest armed opposition force, reached 50,000 fighters, including some of the 10,000 government soldiers who defected.

Friedman, perhaps chastened by the disaster of Iraq, was wary of proposals for Western support for the rebels. In 1982, while a Beirut-based reporter, he coined the term “Hama rules,” for Hafez al Assad’s ruthless slaughter of twenty thousand residents of that city to put down a rebellion led by the Muslim Brotherhood. And while other countries affected by the Arab Spring were imploding separately from each other, he wrote, a civil war in Syria would explode across the Middle East, drawing in regional players and fueling sectarian and ethnic conflicts that could not be contained within national borders.

But Obama was surprisingly sanguine about the opposition’s chances. Or at least, that’s what he seemed to think in 2011, when he proclaimed that Assad should step down. With Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, and Muammar Qaddafi gone, the moral arc of the region was bending—if not toward justice—at least away from dictatorship, and America could soon forget the Middle East and pivot to the Pacific. Lethal aid to the FSA was unnecessary.

Thus did Obama invert Theodore Roosevelt’s most famous piece of advice. Rather than speaking softly and carrying a big stick, he spoke loudly and carried a twig. Even when he proclaimed that use of chemical weapons by government forces would be a “red line,” he gave no indication of how or whether he would enforce that line if Assad crossed it.

Obama thought he could be on the right side of history simply by talking. But it was American pressure, leverage created by the decades-long working relationship of the U.S. and Egyptian militaries, not the march of history, that convinced longtime ally Mubarak to step down. And it was bombs and bullets, not moral suasion, which overthrew Qaddafi. For all his justifiable wariness of America throwing its weight around in the Arab world, Obama was naïve in thinking the words of an American president, without actions to back them up, would not have consequences. 

Friedman exhibited a better understanding of this in 1999. While putting forward his theory of peace via fast food, he reminded the reader of Thucydides, the ancient Athenian historian who wrote that countries go to war for three reasons: “honor, fear and interest.” As long as olive trees exist, and as long as people care about them, liberal forces, whether free trade or moral argument, can never fully replace raw power.

It might be argued that calling for a foreign ruler to step down does not require an American president to take concrete steps to remove him, which is true as far as it goes. But announcing a desire to see something happen, something the announcer has the power to help bring about, sets up the expectation of working to achieve it. Inaction at that point makes the proclaimed enthusiasm seem hollow. It saps people’s confidence in the proclaimer. Why would he say he wants us to win, they think, if he doesn’t bother to help us?

Obama had seen what American power could do, but he couldn’t shake his faith that a vague moral arc was a viable substitute.

With or without his use of the term “red line,” when Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, Obama should have used force against the regime. He had made it known that he wanted Assad’s rule to end. The FSA was holding its own against the regime’s army. American and French airstrikes may not have been enough of a push to overthrow Assad, but they would have been a step in the right direction.

In the Middle East generally, not just in Syria, the president who described his approach to foreign policy as “don’t do stupid shit” didn’t even follow his own dictum. Withdrawing from Iraq in 2011 without a stable political settlement was not the smart thing to do. And less than two months before refusing to enforce his own red line, his administration was waffling over whether to call Egyptian General Abdel Fattah al Sisi’s coup a coup, when they could have used American leverage over the Egyptian military to help preserve Egypt’s democracy. Obama had seen what American power could do, but he couldn’t shake his faith that a vague moral arc was a viable substitute.

Obama came to view his decision not to bomb (to negotiate with Russia the (ultimately unsuccessful) removal of chemical weapons instead) as the moment he finally broke with an unduly hawkish foreign policy establishment, when he threw the “Washington playbook” away. What he really did was leave a void in Syria, one filled by ISIS and Vladimir Putin. With government forces no longer facing the prospect of Western bombs, the FSA was undermined. Instead, the lead role in armed alternatives to Assad was played by ISIS, while Russian forces bolstered the regime. Having enabled its formation while the U.S. was bogged down in Iraq, Assad was delighted to have a legion of Islamist extremists too brutal even for Al Qaeda become the face of opposition. His strategy worked; he has thus far held on to the olive trees.

Others more aware of how a continued U.S. presence would help the Middle East, like historian Robert Kagan, knew that the void left by American withdrawal would not be filled by the progress of history—but by the enforcers of brutality.

The sudden rise of ISIS made Obama come to his senses. Others more aware of how a continued U.S. presence would help the Middle East, like historian Robert Kagan, knew that the void left by American withdrawal would not be filled by the progress of history—but by the enforcers of brutality. What’s more, going to war with ISIS had a humanitarian element, saving Iraq’s Yazidi minority from extermination. The president who wanted his legacy to include an American shift away from wars in the desert realized that legacy depended on stability, and that stability sometimes required force.

While Obama did not share all the convictions of the foreign policy establishment, with their Clintonian faith in American military power wielded for liberal reasons, he shared their faith in the Lexus world. Obama’s economic policy was largely Clintonian, with its promotion of free trade and its reluctance to curb Wall Street. But Bill Clinton better understood (if not soon enough in the case of Bosnia) that humane values need power behind them.

The Kosovo War that debunked the Golden Arches Theory was also one of the great triumphs of Clinton’s foreign policy. Rather than drag its feet as it had during the Bosnian genocide, NATO pressed for a peacekeeping force to halt ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians, and when Serb leader Slobodan Milošević rejected it, the alliance bombed Serbia until he gave in. Friedman was a Kosovo hawk. As the bombing campaign dragged on, and the Serbs kept resisting, he called for the strikes to be ramped up. Meanwhile, Clinton was fully committed to NATO winning. As was revealed after the war, he was preparing to authorize a ground invasion if the bombing did not bring Milošević to heel. Milošević was an olive tree man just like the Assads, with his belief in a Greater Serbia and his invocation of the 1389 battle against the Ottoman Empire. But force made him submit.

The Libya intervention was Obama’s Kosovo. Faced with the imminent slaughter of tens of thousands of civilians by Qaddafi, he wisely followed the advice of advisors Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, and Samantha Power, and led a NATO bombing campaign. The civil war that Libya has endured since 2014 does not mean the intervention three years earlier was a mistake. As Brookings Institution expert Shadi Hamid wrote in 2016, the best comparison to make is between Libya without intervention and Libya with it. Civil war did not break out right away, and Obama has always said his regret about Libya was not the intervention itself—but his and his fellow leaders’ failure to prepare for the aftermath.

Had Obama intervened strongly enough in 2013, Syria could have been his Bosnia, a long-running humanitarian disaster that a U.S. president halted after initially dragging his feet. Instead, his refusal to side with the non-jihadist opposition led to something far worse than Bosnia. As many as half a million or more, have died, while the war has resulted in massive waves of refugees. With or without an expressed desire to see Assad go, Obama could have taken steps to weaken him, as NATO did to Milošević (a year after conceding Kosovo, the Serb leader was ousted by his own people, albeit with Americans providing some guidance).

The refugee flows resulting from the Syrian war have led to mass embracing of olive tree equivalents throughout the West, even in countries that have not taken in lots of refugees. Hungary’s Fidesz and Poland’s Law and Justice have whipped up anti-Muslim sentiment to their advantage. Marine le Pen’s right-wing populism has proved so appealing that even Emmanuel Macron, the golden boy of France’s Lexus crowd, has sought to restrict immigration. And while Donald Trump is far fonder of skyscrapers bearing his name than of trees of any kind, his odes to past industrial greatness conjured up a vision of America under attack, as did his shameless bashing of Muslims and Mexicans (abetted by progressives who equated concerns about terrorism and borders with racism). America’s greatness was threatened not by Lexuses (unless they stood for Japanese and/or Chinese imports), but by political correctness and immigration—and the Donald would beat them back, while he abandoned America’s Kurdish allies to their Turkish enemies and a soon-to-be reinvigorated ISIS.

However much Americans want to leave Syria, or the rest of the Middle East, the U.S. can only actually do so with terrible results. Assad’s olive tree world matters far more to him than it does to Americans, but that doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant to America. After Obama’s belated realization of this (and his successor’s determination to withdraw at all costs) the world can only hope Trump’s successor is enough of a realist to realize the benefits of not merely speaking about a more just world, but of actively trying to achieve it.

Michael D. Purzycki is a staff writer at Charged Affairs, the journal of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.

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