The dangerous price of ignoring Syria
Vali Nasr

President Obama has doggedly resisted American involvement in Syria. The killing of over 70,000 people and the plight of over a million refugees have elicited sympathy from the White House but not much more. That is because Syria challenges a central aim of Obama’s foreign policy: shrinking the U.S. footprint in the Middle East and downplaying the region’s importance to global politics. Doing more on Syria would reverse the U.S. retreat from the region.

Since the beginning of Obama’s first term, the administration’s stance as events unfolded in the Middle East has been wholly reactive. This “lean back and wait” approach has squandered precious opportunity to influence the course of events in the Middle East. There has been no strategy for capitalizing on the opportunity that the Arab Spring presented, or for containing its fallout — the Syrian crisis being the worst case to date. The president rewarded Burmese generals with a six-hour visit for their willingness to embrace reform, but he has not visited a single Arab country that went through the Arab Spring.

Obama sees Syria as a tragic humanitarian crisis without obvious strategic implications for the United States. “How do I weigh tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?” he asked in a New Republic interview in January. When the president visited the region last month he chose to focus on the Arab-Israeli peace process rather than Syria. The peace process is now at the top of Secretary of State John Kerry’s agenda.

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