President Barack Obama and All That Jazz

At the heart of jazz is improvisation, whether it involves musical variations on chord progression, modal harmony, scales, rhythmic meters, or atonal expression.  The giants of jazz, such as Coleman Hawkins, Miles Davis, Stan Getz, and John Coltrane, have exemplified the creative art of immediate construction.  Improvisation by soloists is advancement and progress in an understood and decisive direction, supported by a group contributing rhythmic patterns in a collaborative effort.

Spontaneous variation, which is essential for gifted jazz musicians, is, however a perilous path for political leaders.  The statements and actions over the last month of the U.S. administration, especially the State Department in dealing with Syria, illustrate that leaders improvising in press conferences can produce sounds of dissonance rather than harmonious and comprehensible utterances.

Recent events have shown that the U.S. policymakers dealing with Middle East affairs have lacked a coherent definite policy with which to approach issues.  They have been responsible for a display of political and diplomatic improvisation that has been discordant and unmelodic.  Moreover, that improvisation on the part of the president has been largely a solo effort rather than collaborative as in jazz improvisation.

President Barack Obama has confessed that he is "not interested in style points."  This not only ignores the familiar aphorism "Style is the man," but also ignores the reality that political style provides direction, formulation of plans and objectives, and motivation for people and groups.  That direction has been missing in recent weeks in Washington.  Instead, the substitute has been improvisation, indecisiveness, and contradictory statements.  The "red line" for Obama was the use of chemical weapons, but the real U.S. indecisiveness was the lack of action over the 120,000 so far killed in the Syrian civil war.  Present rhetoric based on humanitarian concerns is no substitute for earlier inaction.

Every musician occasionally plays wrong notes, and these are often immediately recognizable by both performers and the audience.  The second issue concerning recent behavior of the administration is not only the refusal to admit mistakes, but also the attempt in a public relations effort to persuade that the wrong notes were ever intended.  Only the 45-minute walk in the White House garden with his chief of staff led Obama to change direction and call for congressional approval of a strike against Syria.

Obama has refused to acknowledge that he misunderstood the mood of Western countries, as well as Congress and the American people.  They rejected his tune and refused collaborative backup.  Secretary of State John Kerry spoke of a strike against Syria being "unbelievably small."  The nature of that possible strike remains unclear, as do the consequences.

Similarly, the conclusions to be drawn from the machinations over policies on Syria are unclear.  Are there winners and losers?  Certainly a military strike by the U.S. has been postponed and is now unlikely to be made, an outcome that almost certainly will be heralded by the majority of both Congress and the American public.  The events have meant the survival in power of President Assad, who has snatched victory from what a few months ago seemed likely defeat.  The man regarded in Washington earlier this year as a "thug and a murderer" is likely to prevail over the assortment of rebels confronting him now that the threat of Western military intervention against him is unlikely.

Russia has long wanted to play a more important role in Middle East affairs.  It is premature to argue that President Putin of Russia has achieved a masterstroke in outmaneuvering Obama and projected himself as the major player in the Syrian imbroglio.  But the Russian protection of Assad by preventing the U.N. Security Council from passing resolutions condemning the violence of his regime and imposing sanctions continues.  Russia today argues that any resolution on Syria to be backed by military force is unacceptable, even though chapter seven of the U.N. Charter sanctions the use of force.  Russia has also been successful in delaying decisions, especially by the call for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, to send weapons inspectors to Syria to begin an investigation that will take some time.  Even on this matter there is uncertainty: on the precise number of sites where chemical weapons are stored in Syria, on who is acceptable to be included in the inspection team, on the assurance that Syria will comply with the result and agree to removal of the weapons.

Moreover, it is equally unclear what U.S. policy will be if the proposed arrangement with Russia, requiring President Assad to hand over all chemical weapons, which will be destroyed or removed by the middle of 2014, fails.  Will Syria, as called for by the "framework agreement," submit a "comprehensive listing" of its chemical stockpile to the international community?  It is improbable that serious pressure has been put on Syria.  If Syria does not comply, it is doubtful that the U.N. Security Council will be able to call for the use of force or for sanctions against the country.  It is also highly unlikely that Obama in this situation is likely to call for military action.

A crucial issue to consider is the consequences of the improvisation taken by the US administration.  Iran is becoming emboldened to train Shiite militias from across the Arab world to fight in Syria and in Iraq.  More important, Iran will pursue its nuclear ambitions in the belief that the United States will not engage in any military confrontation and that the West is likely to accept a nuclear-armed Iran as inevitable rather than challenge or attempt to prevent it.  Even North Korea may now be less concerned about the possibility of U.S. action concerning its nuclear program.

What is needed now is not improvisation, but a clear statement of objectives in the Syrian situation as well as in the Middle East as a whole.  Above all, what is the U.S. national interest in the area?  Clearly, support for Israel, the ally of the U.S. and the only real friend, is crucial.  But the Obama administration must formulate a coherent policy for the area.

Improvisation was good for Stan Getz, but it is not good for Barack Obama.