The Syrian Problem
The success or failure of President Obama's foreign policy for the first four years will depend on what ultimately happens in Egypt, Libya, and Syria. However, how he has handled those nations shows a foreign policy that is more in line with the Bush administration polices than statements made during the 2008 campaign. Syria is a clear example of those distinctions.
Strong leaders and strong countries talk to their enemies. That was the mantra of the pre-election Obama campaign. Of course, the response to that was to ask "well then, what do you do when those discussions fail?" We now have the answer to that question: you invade just as before, you just do it covertly.
Upon entering office, President Obama was quick to extend sanctions put in place by the Bush administration on Syria. In doing so, he clearly identified that nation's actions as unacceptable. However, not long after doing that the President re-opended the embassy in Syria that was closed in 2005 due to Syria's actions in Lebanon. Unfortunately, the embassy was closed again when violence in Syria made it impossible to assure the safety of the ambassadors.
President Obama reacted to the growing crisis in Syria just as he had promised to to during the election. He called for the Syrian regime to end its violence against its citizens and begin to discuss meeting its people's demands. Syria refused to speak with the US and the UN in any meaningful way.
In August of 2011, President Obama instituted new sanctions on the nation and its petroleum industry. At that time he also begin to call for Assad to step down. While that date is important, equally important was the promise not to interfere with the Syrian people's desire to establish democracy or intervene to drive them towards the leadership the US desired. Since that time, the US has given $76 million in humanitarian aid to Syria through various organizations and the UN.
While the humanitarian aid was done openly and in congruence with President Obama's stated polices, the President did not stop with humanitarian aid. The administration has given $25 million dollars to provide non-lethal equipment to the rebels, begun to allow the rebels to collect donations in the US, coordinated the rebellion from a base in southern Turkey, and President Obama signed an intelligence finding to allow the CIA to operate in Syria with the goal of aiding the rebels. All of these actions are in oppositon to the stated policy of remaining neutral in the ultimate government established in Syria.
It must be understood that whatever group that is supported by the American military system will have a significant upper hand in establishing itself as the leading party in whatever government is formed in Syria when Assad is removed. This menans that President Obama was not being entirely truthful in his assertion that the US was not interfering in the Syrian rebellion.
If the US was aiding those rebels prior to the sanctions and calls for Assad's removal in August of 2011, then President Obama has a much bigger problem. One of the assertions made by Assad and Quaddaffi was that the "rebels" they were fighting were in fact not their own citizens but foreign fighters sent to destablize the country. This destabilization then forced the government to retaliate with that retaliation used as justification to remove the regime. If the CIA was organizing and helping those rebels, this claim might eventually be given more credit.
Imagine this scenario: a popular uprising begins in Iran in which the people attempt to overthrow the government there. The UN and other organizations attempt to help, but the Iranian government asserts that the only real trouble is coming from the American led agitators in Iran. While no one really believes this, they aren't willing to risk going into another country while the possibility remains that the entire event was orchestrated by the Americans.
This is the problem with pledging peace will advocating nation building. If you attempt it covertly and it is exposed, you lose credibility from all sides. The truly strong, like Iran, don't believe that you have the will to legitimately threaten them into behaving. The weaker nations, like Syria, don't believe you when you claim to be their friend.
The fact that President Obama used the no-fly zone granted by the UN to pound Libya into submission is another problem. This time, the UN security council failed to pass a resolution partly out of fear that the US would view it as a step towards a no-fly zone there and an eventual pounding of Assad's forces on the ground under the guise of instituting that ban.