Oh, Washington!

On Syria, the Public, Process, and Results

The Syria story is a great case study in how Washington cares about process more than results.

POTUS has been getting boxed about the ears from all sides on Syria, but apparently the people are at least somewhat satisfied. From a new WashPost/ABC poll:

Americans overwhelmingly support the diplomatic agreement between the United States and Russia to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons, despite having deep doubts about the Syrian regime’s compliance and giving low marks overall for how President Obama is handling the situation, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll ...

... But if Syria balks at the terms of the agreement, Obama could face reduced resistance to the use of military power to enforce the pact. Asked whether they would favor a congressional resolution authorizing force if the deal does not yield results, 44 percent say they would support it and 48 percent say they would not.

So people don't think he handled it well but are satisfied with the outcome and are now more open to the possibility of a military strike in the future if Assad doesn't live up to the terms of the deal. That's all about right. Funny how that works out sometimes.

Except that the poll was taken smack in the middle of events. Some respondents were interviewed before Kerry and Lavrov struck the deal, some after. Presumably a fresher poll conducted entirely post-deal will yield somewhat better numbers.

This is a process vs. results story. The process was terrible, and Obama (and Kerry) certainly mishandled it going back a couple of years. I keep talking about the democratic aspirations of the people in the region. My biggest criticism of Obama is that he really plays up to those hopes with big talk and then dashes them by not following through. Saying Assad needs to step down implies to people in the region that you're going to do something about that, whether it's military or just continued and very public diplomatic pressure. And then not to do that is a problem. Obama doesn't have many fans left among democrats in the region, and that's his fault. He should have held back on some of that talk in the first place.

At the same time, there were these secret conversations going on for a year with Russia about what to do about Syria. And those appear to have borne fruit. So, pending how this plays out over the next 18 months, what we have here is a pretty ugly public process (accompanied by a private process that was of necessity kept from the public) that led in the end to a pretty good result.

But Washington is a place where most people care far, far more about process than results. The reasons for this should be obvious. The process is the game. It's what is ongoing and visible, so it's the part that people get to judge and assess and gossip about and declaim on. And most people love to make snap judgments, and the more dramatic the better, because that gets you more hits and tweets and so on. I suppose I'm hardly immune to this, being a little cog in this machine myself, but at least I have the ability to step back and observe it and see that it exists and understand that I'm a part of it.

So what happens is, these narratives (Syria is a disaster) get etched into the stone during the process part of the story, before the result even happens. As it turns out, Syria isn't a disaster, from the strict Washington perspective (it's certainly a disaster from other perspectives). But most pundits base their conclusions on process, and of course this is augmented in the foreign-policy realm, especially when saber rattling is involved, because the president has to display the proper dose of testosterone, which is why everyone was bowing down before Bush and Cheney back in 2002. A subtler foreign policy is harder to conduct in public, especially in our time.