Escalating violence in Syria has become the ultimate no-win political situation for President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney: The deepening crisis is impossible for their campaigns to ignore but too complex for them to articulate an easy solution.
Romney has seized on the crackdown in Syria as an opportunity to dent Obama's foreign policy credentials, painting him as weak and indecisive in the face of more than a year of violence. But Romney's vague prescriptions for what he would do differently have opened him to criticism from the Obama campaign that he is weighing in from the sidelines with "nothing but tough talk" while the president does the real work of managing the crisis.
The violence in Syria hasn't captured the full attention of an American electorate consumed by the economy and other domestic issues. But the barbs being traded between the campaigns try to raise questions of leadership for the two men battling for a job filled with unexpected challenges.
Romney zeroes in on what he portrays as a lack of leadership in Obama's handling of Syria's 14-month government crackdown on opponents to the regime. Following a weekend massacre of more than 100 Syrian civilians, including dozens of women and children, Romney said the president's weakness had resulted in a "policy of paralysis."
In turn, the Obama campaign has sought to cast the president as the one bearing the responsibility for actually handling the crisis. While Obama "has demonstrated his ability to work with world leaders to resolve international conflicts," campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said, Romney has a "rudderless foreign policy agenda."
The heated rhetoric between the rival campaigns belies the fact that there are significant gaps in both candidates' policy positions on Syria and few differences in the specifics they have offered. And that vagueness does little to shed light on how Obama may approach Syria in the coming months and how Romney would behave if elected this fall.
Both Obama and Romney have called for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down and clear the way for a political transition. Mindful of the war-weary American public, neither candidate supports direct U.S. military engagement in Syria. And both agree on the need to pressure Russia, which holds veto power on the U.N. Security Council, to end its support of Assad's regime, though Romney argues that Obama hasn't been tough enough with Moscow.
Romney, however, has called on the U.S. and its partners to "arm the opposition so they can defend themselves." But he has offered little sense of what he would do if the ensuing battles didn't push Assad from power or, if they did, what type of political transition he would support.
Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Romney is unlikely to articulate a fuller vision for Syria before the election because he doesn't want to own the problem before he needs to.
"His instinct is not to define a view," Alterman said. "His instinct is to attack the status quo without really presenting a coherent alternative."
The matter is further complicated for Romney by a lack of consensus within his own party over how to handle the crisis. A handful of hard-line voices in the Republican Party, led by Romney backer and Arizona Sen. John McCain, have called for U.S. airstrikes in Syria similar to the campaign the Obama administration waged successfully with NATO partners in Libya to push Moammar Gadhafi from power. But that effort has gained little traction, with other Republican lawmakers wary of leading the U.S. into another war after a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan.
McCain ramped up his criticism of the Obama administration's handling of the crisis Thursday. During a trip to Malaysia, he said it was "embarrassing that the United States of America refuses to show leadership and come to the aid of the Syrian people."
The White House opposes sending arms to the opposition, saying further militarization in Syria would only lead to more chaos. The administration also says there isn't enough clear information about the makeup of the opposition or assurances that the weapons wouldn't end up in the hands of al-Qaida, Hezbollah or other terrorist organizations.
Instead, the White House is hoping a steady stream of economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure can weaken Assad's grip on power. While administration officials say they are discussing with allies potential next steps for dealing with Syria, the lack of any publicly defined specific options under consideration has opened the president up to criticism.
"At some point you need to come up with a policy to make Assad step down or acknowledge that you're not going to do it," said Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official and scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
For Obama, military engagement with Syria may not be feasible from either a policy and political perspective. Syria, unlike Libya, has greater defense capabilities, and administration officials doubt a bombing campaign could be accomplished quickly and relatively bloodlessly. Engaging U.S. forces in Syria would also run counter to Obama's foreign policy campaign narrative, which is built on being the president who ends wars, with the Iraq conflict coming to a close under his watch and the Afghanistan campaign winding down.
The violence in Syria has spiraled out of control as the uprising against Assad that began in March 2011 has morphed into an armed insurgency. An estimated 13,000 people have died so far.
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