Obama’s Grand Balancing Act

In a New York Times article released over Labor Day weekend entitled “U.S. Presses for Truce in Syria, With Its Larger Policy on Pause,” President Obama’s attention to the Syrian Civil War is put into question. It is posited by the authors of the piece, Mark Landler and Mark Mazzetti, that the President has placed his energy towards other matters at hand, with particular regards to the environment, especially with his recent trip to China to ratify the Paris climate resolution, as well as his environmentally-focused visit to the Midway Islands.

Some may see this inattention to Syria as a blatant disregard for the geopolitical events in the Middle East, as well as a lack of empathy for the many victims of the war. With the now infamous image of a Syrian boy bloodied and dusty after being pulled out of the ruins in Aleppo in circulation, it is hard to escape the reality that the conflict is ongoing and violent as ever. However, we should view Obama’s pivot to environmentalism not as a cold-shouldering of the Syrian War, but rather an evolution in his direction as President.

As with many administrations, Obama has had to play a constant game of balancing energy and focus to certain issues. These can be grouped into two areas: long-term, existential problems that could have dire effect on the state of the country, and short-term, more tangible issues which could temporarily cause havoc. Climate change would fall into the first category, whereas terrorism can be placed into the latter. When Obama first came into office in early 2009, one of the immediate decisions he was going to have to make was where to focus his energy. As a rational leader, the President has turned his attention to laying the seeds for fixing issues that could potentially cause fractions within our civilization, namely climate change. This comes at the expense of attempting to intervene in complex, bitter, sectarian wars. Where the evolution has come, however, is with Obama’s attitude in the Middle East, which has undoubtedly changed his position on combatting climate change.

When the Syrian War broke out in 2011, the President was careful in his response. Rather than immediately placing boots on the ground, Obama held back, which was typical for a leader who has always been wary of intervention into foreign lands, particularly the Middle East. Over the years, it has become clear to Obama that the conflict will not only require diplomatic mediation, but rather a total restructuring of United States foreign policy, mainly centered around sowing seeds to urge long-term success over short-term and temporary gain. Obama is also highly cognisant of the historically negative effect a foreign military intervention can have on a country that is embroiled in tumult.

Where many see the Syrian War as a conflict steeped in religious and tribal sentiments, we are fortunate to have a President who sees it as a war that broke out because of deeper reasons, mainly food scarcity and water shortages in Syria, likely caused by climate change. In regards to intervention in the region, Obama is aware that this will only bring about short-term military victories (or not). Obama is attempting to shift his foreign policy towards solving problems not through militarism, but with environmentalism.

If one were short-sighted, Obama’s recent lack of attention to Syria would seem like an example of his inexperience with foreign affairs, but this would be a crucial misunderstanding of the evolution in his outlook of the world. Unlike many of the leaders before him, the current President sees history in centuries, not four or eight year terms.

It can be disheartening to see no action being taken on the Syrian conflict, and Obama must be just as eager to end the war. It should be noted that his current inattention to the conflict will benefit the region in the long term, and his increased focus with regards to climate change will have a lasting impact on the world as a whole.


PHOTO CREDIT: Pete Souza/White House

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