As President Barack Obama tries to dig himself out of his self-inflicted Syrian fiasco, there’s one aspect to this crisis that few people are talking about.
What Obama can learn from Israel.
The president may run the world’s most powerful country, but Israel has vastly more experience navigating the treacherous ways of its unforgiving neighborhood.
Let’s take as one example the U.S. objective of deterring Syria from using chemical weapons.
Deterrence is a fancy diplomatic term for putting the fear of God into your enemy so that he won’t mess with you.
Obviously, Obama’s verbal attempt at deterrence—warning that the use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line”—didn’t exactly work, as Syrian President Bashar Assad had the nerve to call his bluff, not once but twice.
As the leader of the free world, though, Obama couldn’t afford to be publicly humiliated and jeopardize his country’s credibility and deterrence.
So, after Assad's second violation, when 1500 people were murdered, the president was forced to react. With great fanfare, he announced that he would send a “shot across the bow” to the Syrian tyrant, presumably to make the point that if you mess with him again, the next shot will be a lot worse.
But again, this latest attempt at deterrence is not likely to succeed, as Obama has hinted strongly that there won’t be a next shot— that his military strike will be “narrow and limited.”
It’s no secret that the last thing Obama wants is to get his hands dirty in another war, especially when he knows that forcing a regime change at this point might spawn an even worse regime.
With no good options, but feeling trapped into "doing something," Obama is trying to avoid humiliation by splitting the difference. As a U.S. official was recently quoted in the Los Angeles Times, Obama seeks a level of intensity “just muscular enough not to get mocked." How’s that for a clear military objective?
This pattern of ambivalence and weakness, Charles Krauthammer writes in the Washington Post, was there from the beginning:
“Assad has to go, says Obama, and then lifts not a finger for two years. Obama lays down a red line, and then ignores it. Shamed finally by a massive poison-gas attack, he sends Kerry to make an impassioned case for righteous and urgent retaliation—and the very next day, Obama undermines everything by declaring an indefinite timeout to seek congressional approval.”
As if things weren’t messy enough, this timeout is allowing the enemy plenty of time to move civilians to military targets and military targets to civilian areas. If the president ends up going through with a military strike, we shouldn't be surprised to see Assad parade lots of dead bodies killed by those big bad Americans.
Now let's compare all this hesitating, wobbling, grandstanding and zigzagging to Israel’s approach to deterring Syria.
When Israel sees that Syria is behaving badly, as when it tries to move weapons of mass destruction to Hezbollah, Israel doesn’t waste time with words or posturing.
It doesn't call any press conferences or give the enemy any advance warning of what it will do.
It just sends in its commandos, destroys the threat, goes home and never says a word. When the enemy senses that you mean business, that's called deterrence.
It’s not a coincidence that for the last 30 years, Israel’s border with Syria has been remarkably quiet.
Imagine if Obama had used this quick and decisive Israeli-style approach in dealing with Syria—if, for example, he had ordered punitive strikes a year ago as soon as Syria first crossed his red line on chemical weapons.
Or, for that matter, if he had decisively supported and armed the opposition early on, before it got so dominated by jihadists.
Had he shown such hard-nosed resolve from the start, would the president be in the pickle he’s in right now? Would America be looking so lame? I don't think so.
If the leader of the free world wants to make it in the Middle East, he’s going to have to think more like an Israeli.
It’s not so crazy to think that Obama should quietly consult with his Israeli allies whenever a tricky situation comes up in any part of Israel’s violent neighborhood—which, these days, is pretty much always.
When you see how America has lost so much credibility and influence with so many key players in the region, can anyone say that America would not be better off today had Obama sought the valuable advice of his only true ally in the Middle East?
If Israelis understand one thing, it's reality. They have no illusions about the neighborhood they live in.
This neighborhood's explosive brew of tribal, sectarian and ethnic conflicts, combined with economic stagnation and social uprisings, has created a dangerous minefield that only hardened and wily local warriors can navigate.
Israel is not only that hardened warrior, it’s America’s best friend.
However the Syrian mess unfolds, with three years left in his term, Obama would do well to take advantage of that friendship.