Another political virtue is the impact intervention would have on Iran. Ousting Tehran’s last reliable satellite regime and replacing it with a Sunni, democratic government would reassure our friends in the region that Washington is determined to stand up to Iran when necessary. Even those who oppose involvement in the Syrian conflict allow that the loss of Assad would be a blow to the Islamic republic.
There is another strategic dimension to Assad’s ouster. Right now, the fighting in Syria risks spreading to the rest of the Middle East. Lebanon, intertwined with Syria for decades, has seen violence between pro- and anti-Assad factions. But Jordan and Iraq also risk being drawn in. Both governments rule fractious populations that could be moved to take on their U.S.-supported leaders. Far from increasing the odds of spillover, facilitating a resolution in Syria would probably contain the fighting and undercut outside groups such as al-Qaeda, which look to take the battle to Syria’s neighbors. This is the kind of confrontation with “violent extremism in all of its forms” that Obama promised in his 2009 speech in Cairo.
Word throughout the region is that Obama is comfortable subcontracting U.S. Middle East policy to Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Both countries were deeply involved in Libya and Yemen, but both support versions of Islam in which extremists thrive. Political opponents say Obama has been uninterested in responding to the rise of such Islamist groups in places such as Egypt; working to ensure that moderate secular and Islamist groups take the helm in Syria would take the steam out of those accusations.
None of these moves entail huge risks for the president. There are other steps he could take that would be more complex, including ordering the U.S. military to provide air cover for the opposition, perhaps with NATO backing; working with Turkey and the Arab League to establish safe corridors for refugees; or working with others to create Syrian safe cities. Those actions could help a desperate population but might carry greater political risk for the president. However, with Mitt Romney supporting stronger efforts to oust Assad, Obama has more room to maneuver — if he wants it.
The administration has fooled itself into thinking that U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan and Putin — whom they hope to persuade to abandon Assad — are the keys to managing the Syria problem. But Syria is proving unmanageable, and the stain of indifference to the death and brutality is spreading. Many have said that a policy pursuing Assad’s ouster is a rare confluence of strategic and moral imperatives. For Obama, it makes political sense as well.
Danielle Pletka is vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
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