Handling of Syria tragedy shows US foreign policy is broken

The situation in Syria offers a good view of how badly things turn out when there is confusion at the White House and the State Department.
Friday 21/09/2018
Little leverage. US President Donald Trump (R) and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington, on August 16. (Reuters)
Little leverage. US President Donald Trump (R) and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington, on August 16. (Reuters)

US foreign policy is broken. How to fix it remains to be seen. This is not a new problem. Derailed US foreign policy is not uniquely a result of US President Donald Trump’s lack of coherence in dealing with other world leaders and getting a handle on crises.

From misjudging the depth of the Arab-Israeli conflict, ignoring the tragedy in Syria, pushing relations with Turkey to an all-time low and bringing tensions with Moscow to a Cold War-era level or simply shoving aside the prime minister of a friendly country as though he were a hooligan, the Trump administration has made a mess of things.

However, what troubles US foreign policy is not only the White House’s and the US State Department’s mismanagement. The problem predates the current administration.

The tragedy playing out in Syria is an example of bad policy gone wrong. Miscalculations across several US administrations, culminating with those of the Obama White House, failed to offer a wise course of action in Syria. The lack of discerning minds in the Obama administration and the ruthless use of lethal violence by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad led to jihadist control of an initially peaceful uprising that was supposed to usher in a democratic revolution.

The problem is in many ways systematic. There is something fundamentally wrong with the way consecutive US administrations, be they Democratic or Republican, handle foreign policy. The system tends to place the world on hold while the United States elects a president.

Under the existing system, all initiatives relating to foreign affairs freeze during presidential election campaigns, which seem to start earlier every election cycle.

Then a new foreign policy line is entered, placing the clock at zero. Dealing with the countries or entities of interest requires long-term vision.  Meeting the challenge posed by Islamists, for instance, would require planning for the next 30 and 40 years.

Once in office, a US president nominates his cabinet and there is a wait for US Senate approval of the nominees. US foreign policy is based on a 4-year plan (sometimes eight years, if the president is re-elected) and changes direction with every president.

The situation in Syria offers a good view of how badly planned foreign policy can affect a country and how badly things turn out when there is confusion at the White House and the State Department.

Syria had long been a loyal friend to the Soviets, who provided most of Damascus’s military’s needs, from individual rifles to anti-aircraft ground-to-air systems. Nevertheless, former Syrian President Hafez Assad distanced himself from Moscow and moved closer to Washington and the European Union.

Damascus severed relations with Washington following the June 1968 Arab-Israeli War. Relations were reinstated in 1974 following a charm and diplomatic initiative from the United States and a visit to Damascus by US President Richard Nixon. He lured the Syrians from the Soviet Union, pulling them somewhat closer to the West.

Today, with a major crisis unfolding in Syria, the United States lacks any diplomatic representation in the country where the Russians have reclaimed the position as Syria’s best friend. Indeed, where Syria is concerned, rarely has the United States been at such odds with the principal actors in the conflict.

Relations with Damascus are non-existent. Relations between Washington and Moscow are as tense as they have ever been with verbal exchanges between them reminiscent of the worst days of the Cold War.

Moscow is back in Syria with a vengeance and has influence over Syria like never before.

Relations between Washington and the other key players in the region, such as Turkey, are not much better. Diplomatic dealings between Washington and Ankara, a NATO ally, are near the point of rupture.

And relations between the United States and the other powerbroker in the region, Iran — well, where does one start?