David Ignatius
Opinion writer March 27, 2013

Here’s the coldblooded calculation at work as President Obama shapes his foreign-policy agenda: If he took “full ownership” of the Syria problem through direct military intervention, that’s probably all he could accomplish during his second term — and even then, he might fail in reconciling that country’s feuding sects.

So Obama is moving instead toward a more pragmatic approach in Syria, with the CIA playing a central role, supplemented by the State Department and the U.S. military. The United States will train Syrian rebels and help build governance in areas liberated from the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Washington will work harder to coordinate policy with the key regional powers — Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Jordan — whose conflicting agendas have threatened in recent days to pull the Syrian opposition apart.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

But Obama won’t make the all-encompassing commitment in Syria that some want because he fears it would devour the remaining years of his presidency.

This pragmatic line on foreign policy was evident during Obama’s trip to the Middle East this month. Though the president is often criticized for his passive, “leading from behind” style, he made some notable advances on the trip. The challenge, as always for Obama, will be to follow through with coherent “from the front” leadership.

Here are three strategic gains that emerged from the trip:

Obama breathed a little life back into an Israeli-Palestinian peace process that had all but expired. He did this largely by the force of his March 21 speech in Israel. What he accomplished was the diplomat’s trick of riding two horses at once: The speech was a love letter to Israel, as one commentator noted, and it was also a passionate evocation of the Palestinians’ plight, and the need to “look at the world through their eyes.”

Obama pulled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu toward the U.S. position on military action against Iran. Netanyahu said that “if Iran decides to go for a nuclear weapon — that is, to actually manufacture the weapon — then . . . it will take them about a year.” He said the United States and Israel share “a common assessment” of Iran. This sounded close to agreement with Obama’s position that the trigger for a military strike would be an Iranian breakout toward a bomb; that’s quite different from the “zone of immunity” arguments Netanyahu was making last year, which viewed Iran’s very position of enrichment technology as the threat. These exchanges demonstrated that Obama is stronger politically than he was a year ago and Netanyahu is weaker. The Israeli prime minister is now trying to associate himself with Obama’s Iran policy, rather than pressuring him.

Obama brokered an important reconciliation between Netanyahu and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. With the region in turmoil, this was a matter of vital national interest for both Israel and Turkey, but it took Obama to provide the personal link that made it happen. This was a payoff for Obama’s cultivation of Erdogan since 2010, and for his “reset” with Netanyahu.

Syria remains the test of whether Obama can, forgive the term, “lean in” more during his second term. Obama has been slow to see the dangers of U.S. passivity there: For months he let things drift in Syria; the United States had a nominal commitment to strengthening command-and-control within the opposition but no real policy on the ground to accomplish it.

Obama is now said to understand the risk that Syria’s sectarian conflict will spread to Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan if the United States doesn’t take stronger action. The White House is eager to work with Brig. Gen. Salim Idriss, the commander of the Free Syrian Army, on training, logistics and other priorities. The administration recognizes that it may need “safe zones,” perhaps protected by air defenses, to train Syrian rebels inside the country rather than in Jordan and Turkey.

The president is still said to resist the simple formula of “arm the rebels,” but he seems close to partnering with friendly intelligence services in the region on what would be a major covert action program, reminiscent of Afghanistan in the 1980s, with all the attendant risks. In framing this project, he’d be wise to bring in some CIA veterans who have experience running similar programs, pronto.

Obama hasn’t had a personality transplant. He’s still likely to be slow and deliberate. But the Middle East trip showed that he has built some political and diplomatic capital and is starting to use it wisely.

davidignatius@washpost.com

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