In Syria today, Obama needs to do better than Bush did. As General Martin Dempsey has indicated, it will be at least a year and perhaps longer before new Syrian opposition army formations are ready to take the fight into Syria and begin to secure territory and people. But the moment that they do so, the reconstruction has to begin. There needs to be a political element ready to govern—and to start the long process of building a new Syrian political system—and mechanisms in place to provide food, medical care, and everything else for the civilian population. That will require a great deal of planning—planning that needs to start long before the first Syrian opposition ground forces cross the Syrian border. In fact, it needs to start now. By way of comparison, the United States began planning for the post-World War II reconstruction of Germany and Japan in 1942, and that was an important aspect of their success.
Another critical mistake Bush made in Iraq was trying to run the whole reconstruction effort. Obama needs to avoid that in Syria, and instead bring other countries on board for the rebuilding as he has already for the take-down. There is no reason that the reconstruction of Syria should cost as much as the reconstruction of Iraq, if it is done properly. And there is no reason that the United States should have to shoulder as much of the costs of nation-building in Syria as it did in Iraq. The Gulf states have repeatedly offered to foot most, or even all, of the bill for Syria. We should take them up on that offer, but doing so is going to mean coordinating with them right from the get go.