September 11, 2013
In-House Note: Sanity Check
Andrew Sullivan writes that rhetorical flourishes may have gotten the better of me in my last post. He says that I was "far, far too caustic about the extremely difficult choices Obama had to confront in the past few months and too breezily dismissive of the breach of the chemical weapons taboo." He may well be right. Foreign policy-making is messy. While I stand behind the basic thrust of my commentary across all its content, I have decided to stop commenting on Syria for at least a couple weeks, likely into October. This may help lend a fresher, perhaps revised view. I can't promise I won't tweet on Syria, but there will be no longer pieces for a spell. Please know I frankly do not relish criticizing U.S. foreign policy-making from afar. I do so because--despite it all--I have a deep pride and respect for the United States. I suppose therefore I care, and so try to enunciate my concerns (yes, sometimes too grandiloquently, the perils of my writing style). But I try to call them like I see them, and this Syria effort to date candidly has seemed a grotesque failure to me. That said, it's easy to carp from the sidelines, and I will 'hit pause' and see how matters progress in an effort to be more magnanimous and gain perspective. Thanks for your understanding.
Farce as Foreign Policy: The Syria Debacle
The gyrations in Syria policy the past week have been simply staggering, beyond the missteps previously chronicled here and the still inadequately proven and/or publicized intelligence I attempted to describe here. On September 5th the United States Ambassador to the United Nations accused Russia of holding “hostage” the UN Security Council given its ‘patronage’ of Syria (as if the United States has never showered patronage on her clients, for instance, myriad vetoes and assorted abstentions on any matter of Israel-related fare). Yet, just five days later, Russia was front and center having cleverly outmaneuvered the American diplomatic apparatus, largely by leaping on a reportedly off-the-cuff, ‘rhetorical’ ultimatum by Secretary of State John Kerry and nimbly re-fashioning it with dispatch into a fig-leaf diplomatic gambit which will likely stave off U.S. airstrikes (of course, its primary, if not sole, objective). The supreme irony is that it is not clear whether Vladimir Putin and Sergei Lavrov rendered more of a favor to their client in Damascus via these Machiavellian machinations, or rather to the U.S. President who appeared on the cusp of a resounding rejection of his unconvincing military cogitations by the American Congress, to say nothing of the lion’s share of his putative allies.
So how did we get to this inglorious impasse? For, make no mistake, Moscow and Damascus will now look to play out the clock and use every trick in the playbook to ensure, first and foremost, that Assad remain in power, second that Franco-American military power is not deployed against Assad’s chemical weapons (“CW”) program, and third that Assad’s CW program is not wholly destroyed, dismantled or otherwise put under convincing, full-bore international supervision (particularly in the context that a raging civil war is underway in that country). Meantime, the notion that this was not ‘gaffe diplomacy’ but the product of months of intricate dialogue with Moscow that belatedly came to fruit is credulity-challenging in the extreme, not least given the State Department’s immediate attempts to walk back Kerry’s remarks, but also broader context like the Obama-Putin summit being canceled in a fit of Edward Snowden pique as weightier agenda items like Syria languished after the NSA-related hissy-fit. Regardless, for those interested in a quick peek at a midstream post-mortem, several key factors helped contribute to this dismally embarrassing episode in U.S. foreign policy history:
1) The President’s Decision to go to Congress Smelled like a Panic Move: Having witnessed the UK Parliamentary debacle, and likely himself possibly looking for an out, Obama’s 45 minute walk-about with Chief of Staff Denis McDonough signaled indecision (not only to his blindsided national security team, but also the entire international community). And while I would have welcomed a sincere attempt to obtain the imprimatur of the legislature’s approval for a possible Syria military action, Obama effectively eviscerated the basic integrity and bona fides of the exercise by simultaneously saying he did not strictly require it as a legal matter given his ‘Commander-in-Chief’ authorities. The 11th and a half hour decision instead simply appeared borne of chaos, drift and indecision passing as policy, one already ridden by painfully apparent prior missteps. The world continued to take due note.
2) The Long Shadow of Iraq: While the UN Ambassador was busily breezily querying the basic cornerstone underpinnings of the post WWII security architecture (e.g. the role of the UN Security Council, which like it or not, if wholly shunted aside without replacement international infrastructure, could eventually lead to far greater perils than any single CW attack), such myopically fanatical R2P adherents apparently did not engage in the merest bit of navel-gazing amidst the festival of frenzied outrage. Post-Iraq, was ‘high confidence’ good enough to launch a war, rather than confirmation? Why were the fatality counts in Ghouta so wildly different among different intelligence services? And why this “absurdly over-precise number” (CSIS Analyst Anthony Cordesman’s words) tally of 1429 dead? All this speaks to basic credibility, and one could be forgiven for being truly astounded that the Administration did not better realize how much higher the burden of proof needed to be post the Mesopotamian morass.
3) Double Standards: Nor did the policy-makers in their Washington DC and Turtle Bay habitats evidently deign to pause and wonder: might we look hypocritical to some, given how selective this bout of mighty, amped-up outrage? After all, how many civilians were killed during Israel’s brutal Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, a campaign leading to a similar fatality count as alleged in Ghouta--both in terms of civilian adults and children tallies of dead--amidst horrific onslaughts in massively densely populated civilian areas, whether caused by conventional weaponry or not (worth noting, and whether strictly considered CW or not, Cast Lead entailed the use of white phosphorus munitions). And are the grim realities of bloodless corpses of a CW attack really that different than the ‘collateral damage’ visited by myriad drone strikes, or the ancillary damage of ‘shock and awe’ during the Iraq fiasco, or for that matter, the near thousand Sisi massacred in Egypt, still courtesy of our tax-dollars, before the bulldozers subsequently swept the corpses away? Regardless, and beyond these hypocrisies (of which one could catalogue many more) and the niceties of upholding norms apart (which when convenient we wholly ignored—even quietly supported their very violation--as with Saddam’s use of CW against Iranians), old-fashioned conventional weapons-based killing has frankly been a much more horrifying specter these past two and a half years of the Syria conflict than any use of CW. The bout of outrage appeared more of the Cambridge faculty room variety than the cruel realities of the blood spilled through this volatile region these past many years, with monstrously hyperbolic parallels to Hitler’s use of gas during the Holocaust an insult to any rational observer.
4) An Epidemic of Telegraphing Intent to the Enemy, or, the Cheerio Campaign: Never in recent memory was a possible military campaign so parsed, leaked, aired, tweeted, blogged, phoned, generally, a total ‘flood the zone’ phenomenon that gives new meaning to the phrase ‘open kimono’. Any element of surprise was removed, doubtless to the dismay of any sentient observer in the entire US military. Beyond this, Assad received all but an engraved invitation to wait out a putative attack, told alternatively that the action would be: a “shot across the bow”, “unbelievably small”; “just muscular enough not to get mocked”, or (perhaps the winner for most ribald): “If Assad is eating Cheerios, we’re going to take away his spoon and give him a fork. Will that degrade his ability to eat Cheerios? Yes. Will it deter him? Maybe. But he’ll still be able to eat Cheerios.” This was high camp playing pretend at soi disant norm-protection.
5) Keystone Kops Prevents Serious Alliance-Building: The above factors, taken together, led to at best a lukewarm reception to the Administration’s plans, everywhere but Ankara, Riyadh and (rapidly diminishing portions of) Paris. After all, when an Administration is lurching chaotically, has not adequately confirmed the intelligence, sanctimoniously and hyperbolically caricatures Syria as the greatest threat to international stability since Munich, and has no persuasive military, diplomatic or other strategic roadmap for what might follow the Tomahawks: well, would you go along? An indicative barometer of how hard the international sales job would prove was the flagging domestic lobbying effort-- even with 800-pound gorilla AIPAC now behind the Administration’s exertions--the Syria authorization still appeared destined for defeat domestically, even among The Hill’s ever-willing, serried lumpenproletariat ranks. Little wonder then that the going would be even tougher internationally, with the Arab League offering only tepid support short of military action (jaw-jaw about an “international global red line”, the redundancy of the verbiage meant to put lipstick on the pig of the empty rhetoric) with erstwhile allies in the grips of hyper-nationalist anti-Islamist hysteria like Egypt effectively opposed, all but rooting Bashar on. Or that our near zero ROI in Iraq was yet again revealed by comments such as these by Maliki: “History will not have mercy on us if we encourage a military attack against any Arab country or any member of the Arab League… Our brothers — the leaders of Arab countries and their peoples — should not forget that supporting a military strike against Syria will set a precedent that [can be] enforced on all Arab countries. If we accepted the strike on Syria, we would be legitimizing any prospective aggression and accepting the conducting of strikes against Egypt, Algeria, Lebanon, Yemen and all other Arab countries without exception. This is something we do not wish to befall any Arab country”. Finally, a unanimous G-20 statement could not even be cobbled together in St. Petersburg, with no BRICs support in the offing (even for rather a weak statement, China and Russia apart, Brazil and India would not play ball) and important countries like Indonesia and South Africa indicated opposition to military action as well. The emperor—even after (or perhaps partly because of) the risible saber-rattling—was effectively revealed to have no clothes, and no one but the most directly self-interested parties really wanted to come along for the ride.
6) Vlad & Sergei to the Rescue!: Amidst this veritable spectacular of incompetence, a last (to date, at least) act of loose-lipped amateurism via a John Kerry gaffe actually provided a possibly salvageable denouement via the near providential dispensation of handy exit ramp-offs. Apparently musing casually like a sententious orator in the Senate Chamber, rather than, well, a Secretary of State, and in response to a journalist's query in London, Kerry suggested immediate disarmament by Assad of his CW could stave off an attack. The Russians jumped into the abysmal policy vacuum presented by Washington’s wild bungling and corralled the Syrian Foreign Minister to make noises such an inspection and disarmament regime might be acceptable to Damascus. They will now play out the clock and steadily dilute any semblance of an international ‘coalition’ that Obama was pitiably attempting to cobble together to defend a norm he’d already abdicated defending previously on various occasions, until YouTubes finally woke him up from his slumbering disaster of a two year old train-wreck of a Syria non-policy.
Little matter. At this stage, one can only hope the shrieks, protestations and inanity of the latest Washington ‘obsession du jour’ will start to fade with the next news cycle. Otherwise, Obama must be careful lest the Syria matter consume much of the bandwidth of his second term, such as it is. He should pivot to a ‘containment-lite’ posture on Syria, effectively allowing the charade of the Russian proposal to play itself out, button-holing it best he can on the margins, despite how ultimately ineffective it will likely prove for a whole variety of factors, not least given there is a raging civil war afoot (but by all means, send in the inspectors!). If there is one smidgen of a silver lining here, the disgusting liar Assad—even as he likely ends up maintaining most of his CW stockpiles—will think quite carefully about using them again. We should count ourselves lucky that this plausible result may have resulted from such serial mismanagement. Obama should count himself similarly fortunate, before launching into a war he had nary a clue how to prosecute after first contact with the enemy in a tinderbox region on the cusp of even larger conflagrations. He should do his best to make up with Vladimir, declare something akin to victory, and move on. Basic self-respect demands it given how near total the fiasco he’s presided over. Meantime, the noisy commotion in the predictable precincts will go on (Are the Russians being honest? Or leading us on? Are we being tough enough? Etc.), speaking more to an insular provincialism seemingly unawares of how bumbling our exertions appear to most outside the Beltway. George Kennan, for one, would have wept.
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September 03, 2013
We Need Hard Confirmation on Syrian CW, Not Just "High Confidence"
Since the rigmarole passing for Syria policy described here, there have been two notable events: 1) John Kerry’s recent comments at the State Department effectively making the case for war against the regime in Damascus (or at least punitive action); and 2) President Obama’s stunning act of political jujitsu belatedly introducing the legislative branch into the late summer Washington pièce de théâtre. Neither development portends well or particularly ameliorates the overall conundrum presented by our flailing Syria policy. I will focus on “1” here, and hopefully turn to “2” shortly. Kerry’s remarks had as rhetorical showpiece a spirited refrain of what “we know” regarding Syrian alleged chemical weapons (“CW”) use. Delivered in a stirring--if overly forced--falsetto, the former Assistant District Attorney of Massachusetts presented the bill of particulars as if mounting a closing argument to a rapt jury box in the environs of Beacon Hill. But the stakes, stage and substantiation needed here are exponentially higher. And behind the spectacle of a bespoke suit, St. Paul’s baritone, ample Boston Brahmin chin, and silver-haired mane, Kerry’s comments ultimately rang hollow. As with Shakespeare’s Queen Gertrude, he ‘doth protest too much, methinks’.
In a relatively short statement, the Secretary of State managed to use the word “know” some nearly two-score times. Yet we really know with certainty far less than was portrayed with such assurance. After the grotesque failed WMD intelligence debacle of Iraq—a dismal stain on the United States--we have zero margin for error with respect to attenuated conjecture or trumped-up circumstantial “evidence.” Nor even does “high confidence” suffice. Indeed, before embarking on another Middle Eastern adventure (other merits of the proposed intervention apart), we must demand hard evidence--amply aired to the public--at very minimum established beyond a reasonable doubt and optimally wholly air-tight. This is not only to ensure we have proven culpability around the brutish crime of Ghouta, but also equally if not more important, to begin the hard work of restoring our credibility on such matters in the international arena. Put simply, a restoration of credibility demands conclusive proof; this means confirmation, full stop.
The following items gave pause in Kerry’s statement:
1) Kerry spoke of “thousands of sources”. This is hyperbolic, as it reflects myriad social media sources. To state the obvious, not all social media is created equal, especially when establishing culpability around war crimes, as opposed to deciding whom to ‘favorite’, ‘face-time’, or ‘friend’;
2) Kerry spoke of a “verdict reached by our intelligence community”, there was no such thing, there was a determination of “high confidence” regarding an intelligence assessment; this is no “verdict”, but rather, a finding;
3) While sympathetic to a degree regarding protecting intelligence sources, Kerry’s comment that “some things we do know we can't talk about publicly” leaves me underwhelmed, notably given the disgraceful Iraq back-drop, unless our global commons is to be relegated to so many supine sheep, we must and deserve more and better by way of publically disclosed information;
4) Kerry then pivoted to asking: “so what do we really know that we can talk about?”, which ended up being rather a lengthy recitation of circumstantial fare: A) that the Assad regime has the largest CW stockpile in MENA; B) that the regime used them previously this year on smaller scale and near the site of the Ghouta event; C) that the regime was “specifically determined to rid the Damascus suburbs of the opposition” and “was frustrated that it hadn't succeeded in doing so”; D) that for three days before the alleged regime attack” Syrian forces were “on the ground in the area making preparations”, and E) that Syrian regime “elements” before the attack were warned to don gas masks and take “precautions associated with chemical weapons.” This is all quite interesting background fare, but none of it—none of it—conclusively proves the regime ordered this atrocity (please know I say that as someone who firmly believes the Assad regime was behind this odious attack, and if we had a competent team and policy in place--which we manifestly do not--should be made to pay the consequences dearly); and
5) Only after this lengthy preamble, Kerry began to move into more interesting terrain, finally getting to the meat (read: evidentiary crux) of the matter. He said the following: “We know that these were specific instructions. We know where the rockets were launched from and at what time. We know where they landed and when. We know rockets came only from regime-controlled areas and went only to opposition-controlled or contested neighborhoods.” But reading the intelligence assessment does not provide the detail on the “specific instructions”, and speaks only of “satellite detections” regarding the rockets provenance. Here again, we need more, and it must be made public, even if in carefully redacted form. Or will we be content only to have Congressional lickspittles, our soi disant “representatives”, give a ministerial ‘all-clear’ on the intelligence, much as they were asleep at the switch on Iraq, or more recently, the egregious NSA over-reaching (at least until they were shamed by Edward Snowden’s revelations to awaken from their insouciant slumber)?
After laying this mostly rhetorical groundwork, Kerry went on to say what we all know, that “all hell broke loose in the social media” after the attacks. Indeed, it did, and yet, we require conclusive proof of the origins of the attack, beyond horrific footage of the grisly aftermath. After all, this speaks only to something horrible having happened, as did reports by respected NGOs like Doctors Without Borders (MSF), but it does not firmly evidence regime culpability. Similarly, sarin samples obtained from first responders proves the existence of said neurotoxic agent on the scene, but not necessarily who delivered it, precisely how, and exactly where.
There are other issues besides, when analyzing the balance of Kerry’s comments. As this McClatchy reporting details, there are pretty wildly differing fatality counts making the rounds, whether the ones trumpeted by the United States, or far lower ones: France (281 fatalities confirmed), the United Kingdom (“at least 350 fatalities”), the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights figures (approximately 500, so that they are reportedly requesting the names of others in the US Government's tally to reconcile an apparently 1,000 strong delta), etc. Regardless, as CSIS Analyst Anthony Cordesman stated, it does appear Kerry was “sandbagged into using an absurdly over-precise number” (1429!), again, this presents deleterious and predictable spill-over implications to our credibility (Cordesman has more well worth reading here, incidentally).
Nor does it help that Kerry has also—before the U.N. investigation is even released—effectively pooh-poohed it in advance, decreeing: “when the UN inspectors finally gained access, that access, as we now know, was restricted and controlled.” Are we concerned about what the United Nations’ investigative team’s findings will be? I mean, what is it with our seeming concern around prejudging same? As for his statement: “(w)e know that a senior regime official who knew about the attack confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime, reviewed the impact, and actually was afraid that they would be discovered”, while intriguing, the international community will be forgiven wanting to hear more concrete details regarding same (I suspect, rank speculation of course, that this is an Israeli intelligence intercept we are being told by Tel Aviv must be kept under wraps). Additionally, while noteworthy that the Syrian regime reportedly shelled the affected areas “at a rate four times higher than they had over the previous 10 days” (it is suggested in part to destroy evidence), this is more circumstantial fare than some resounding evidentiary capstone to Kerry’s “case.” Finally, and certainly worth noting too, some outside experts are unwilling to make definitive conclusions regarding CW usage by the regime, such as this impressively researched view.
Let me be abundantly clear: I believe the Assad regime is despicable in the extreme and that they indeed knowingly ordered the use of CW in Ghouta up and down the chain of command. I think the regime was feeling increasingly emboldened given Obama’s reticence in not enforcing the ‘red-line’ previously, given too the lack of tangible follow-through on arming the opposition, and lest we forget, the amazing spectacle of fecklessness with respect to Sisi’s massacres of approximately 1,000 Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (still courtesy of our tax dollars, as we can’t even summon a suspension of aid in the face of a bald-faced coup in keeping with U.S. law; perhaps bulldozed, bloody corpses seems less galling than ones without any marks and scratches, niceties of ‘norms’ apart?).
But we have no choice but to reckon that we labor under the legacy of the terrible blunder that was the ginned-up intelligence that caused trillions of dollars wasted, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, thousands of American ones, the epic disgraces of Abu Ghraib, and such grievous harm dealt the United States' global repute. We must recall all this was premised on lies. So, like it or not, evidentiary hurdles moving forward must be higher. This is critical to better bolster regional and global credibility, alliance dynamics, and more. Rapidly cobbled together 'quick and dirty' presentations to allow the Tomahawks be launched post-haste simply do not suffice. Indeed, before embarking on an adventure to Iraq’s legacy Baathist neighbor to the immediate West, particularly based on intelligence assessments again, it is incumbent to have, and forgive the phrase, a slam-dunk case, although let us please call it something else: conclusive proof beyond a reasonable doubt, or if you prefer, firm confirmation.
Mr. Kerry is of course an impressive personage on the American political scene of long-standing, and a talented diplomat as already evidenced by his resuscitation of the Middle East peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians. But he did not deliver such a case. Quite the contrary, his presentation begged more questions than it answered. We must demand more and better information. Our times—and recent debacles--require this. The stakes are too high for atmospheric speeches and Sunday green-room ministrations to carry the day. Else we have learned nothing.
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August 30, 2013
Make It Stop
Several days ago I wrote I was extremely conflicted on the question of punitive action in Syria, but no longer. I am now staunchly opposed having better detected an utter lack of true seriousness by the Obama Administration. The myriad leaks around what type of mission, the palpable trigger-happiness among some, the British debacle (they won't even have their poodle this time, the cat-calls will ring!) and the ‘shot across the bow’ nonsense showcases an Administration unready for an invigorated course correction of its flailing Syria policy. Frankly, I am astonished by the lack of seriousness and mediocrity on display. Our NSA Advisor has taken to Twitter to issue inanely faux-imperious pronunciamentos that would embarrass prior occupants of the office like Kissinger, Brzezinski, or Scowcroft, while abdicating an inter-agency coordination role that would actually bottoms-up a credible policy (memo to Susan Rice: calling foreign leaders to lobby coalitions is the easy work—if their Parliaments are another matter--having a convincing strategic end-game the true value-add, so perhaps you might tweet about the former less often). Defense Secretary Hagel is likely biting his tongue and saluting best he can but fundamentally opposed. And I don’t even need to speculate about what CJCS Martin Dempsey is thinking. Secretary of State Kerry, with respect, will be pulled in too many directions and himself is opposed to the pin-prick approach, which is essentially what is in the offing. In short, the team is not ready for prime time.
The incredibly publicized, telegraphed theater around how this will be a deterrent mission to slap bad-boy Bashar’s wrist for his alleged use of CW (as we break international law ourselves via the putative response despite the typical legal mumbo-jumbo the lawyers will be commandeered to produce) has been an epic embarrassment, unless Barack wished all the preamble noise and spectacle serve as the deterrent itself. Perhaps he did, if so, he should follow his instinct, hang up his spurs and allow his Syria fireworks show to never see the light of day. I expected more from this President given his obvious charisma, intellect and oratory, but it appears not married to strategic execution of complex statecraft. In this, he is no Dick Nixon, whom for all his many flaws, at least was capable of geopolitical panache and intrepid diplomacy on occasion. What we are seeing here is a festival of superficiality about the humanitarian imperative presented by Ghouta. It is an unbridled tantrum masquerading as moral righteousness.
If you mean it for real, however, you quietly go about your business planning a deterrent response that Bashar won’t simply hunker down through, you wait for the UN inspectors to issue their report on reasonable timing (would be graceful, no, at very least given the risks they undertook during their mission?), you at least try to have robust UNSC dialogue (let the Russians be on record that they are opposed, as we know they’ll be, but put in the effort regardless!) you cease with the constant leaks and descriptions and explications of what the policy might be or won’t or whether it will be no fly or no drive or cruise or no cruise or this or that, you don’t force allies to rush ham-handed into Parliamentary debates half-assed even before the UN investigation report finalized, and speaking of Parliaments, you deign to seek some imprimatur of legitimacy from yours; in short, you quietly execute, lay groundwork and let your opponent wonder what the hell is coming after his ostensibly despicable actions, rather than this gussied-up R2P prom-night feel-good gesture. The benefits of protecting the norm are outweighed by the feeble lack of coherence of the contemplated response.
These past 72-96 hours have been a titanic embarrassment for anyone who cares about U.S. foreign policy. It appears a rush job to beat the St. Petersburg summitry on a quiet August weekend that everyone hopes will be quickly forgotten, except for the mighty 'lesson' learned. It’s worse than unprofessional and cowardly. It’s contemptible in the extreme. Make it stop. Declare the orgy of speculation and movement of naval carriers have already doubtless ensured the boy dictator will think more carefully in the future using such weaponry. Mission accomplished! Better than risking gross unintended consequences by a team that, alternatively, does not really have the stomach for the fight, or are simply not up to it strategy-wise, and in the President's case, perhaps both.
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August 27, 2013
The Syria Conundrum (Cont).
I truly cannot recall a foreign policy challenge in recent memory as confounding as the Syria conundrum. There are no good options, as we are all painfully aware. I have been on the record since April 2011 that once Bashar began massacring his own people, his legitimacy evaporated and he would ultimately be swept from power. I still believe this, quite apart from what the U.S. and its allies may or may not do in the coming days. I also attempted some time ago, to sketch out the beginnings of a more robust, internationalized response, including buffer zones near the Turkish border, working to better consolidate the Syrian opposition, as well more unrelenting diplomacy with both friends and foes on the dossier. Events since have only rendered talk of easy fixes more fantastical. We have seen the radicalization of many fighters on the ground, an obdurate Russian stance rendering diplomacy frustrating, as well as an arguably unexpectedly high degree of support from Iran and its proxy Hezbollah, among other impeding factors.
As the months of conflict turned to years, a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions has mushroomed, with approximately 5 million refugees and internally displaced persons, not to mention over 100,000 dead. Somehow, a larger regional conflagration has not erupted (yet) in the midst of this terrible specter of violence and displacement, although clearly Iraq’s security has deteriorated (mostly but not only because of U.S. troop withdrawals), Jordan is under tremendous strain, Lebanon looks inordinately fragile even by its perennial standard of fragility, Israel is on hair-trigger, while Turkey’s Syria border has been a matter of steadily increasing concern for Ankara. Still, despite these growing risks, Washington and other Western chancelleries were mostly content to lean back amidst mostly vapid efforts and half-hearted action.
A supposed exception was the initial hullabaloo around so-called ‘red-lines’, originally depicted by the Obama Administration as not only use of chemical weapons (“CW”) but even merely movement of CW. This red line turned pink likely in Q4 2012, given reported CW usage by regime forces in Homs. Even after protracted ‘chain of custody’ cogitations that appeared to evidence regime CW usage, the Obama Administration still more or less did nothing, except a tepid decision to arm the rebels--delayed and ultimately still today an unconvincing policy change. Important to note too, I suspect it was the fall of Qusayr--with the regime and Hezbollah increasingly cleaning up the battlefield at the time with vigor --that had panicked some in Washington to begin arming the rebels directly, rather than the initial ‘red-line’ violations. Regardless, we were certainly not witnessing a robust policy with convincing strategic purpose.
Much of the above backdrop looks set to change with the apparent CW usage in Ghouta last week on a far larger scale than anything witnessed to date in Syria. Assuming the Assad regime is behind the attack—of which I have little doubt given the apparent delivery mechanism making a ‘false flag’ operation immensely doubtful—even a transparently reluctant President has been thrust into the vortex of imminent military action. Before turning to whether one might think military action warranted, or not, first, some quick predictions on what is likely to happen in the next days:
• Obama will make a statement to the nation touting the U.N. inspectors findings, our own investigative work (already a “near air-tight circumstantial case”, we are told), how broad the coalition supporting action (there will be countries beyond the usual suspects like U.K. France, Saudi Arabia, Turkey etc., if not the El Salvadors this go around) and the legal grounds (around violations of international legal ‘norms’—if not laws—given the Syrians not a signatory of the CW Convention, bonus points also for any non-ironic mentions of Geneva Convention), while perhaps making token mention of retroactive Congressional authorization given timing imperatives;
• He will go on to say given robust legitimacy/authorizations per “1” above he has directed limited, calibrated strikes in response to Assad’s regime odious violation of the international taboo against CW usage, a military action that will involve cruise missiles (easiest) and possibly long-range bombers (still reasonably low risk), and likely include U.S., U.K. and French direct action (I would be surprised this is cloaked as a NATO operation as that would only unduly humiliate the Russians more, quite unwise, as I’ll touch on below);
• The targets will likely include artillery batteries such as those used to deliver the CW into the environs of Ghouta, similar type ‘delivery’/transport/logistical military assets elsewhere, but will not include ‘shock and awe’ type direct hits on extremely strategic/high prestige regime targets, nor large-scale destruction of the air force, airports, air-defense systems and such (calibrated to try to not overly agitate the Iranians, who rely on air transport to aid the Syrians, nor overly rub it in the face of Moscow), although final target selection may well include some limited degree of air-force related assets as warning salvo;
• Obama will go on to message that the military action has been undertaken to protect something akin to the ‘core interests’ of, not only the United States, but also the entire civilized world, in that we cannot accept a 21st Century in which states—including non-signatories to the CW Convention—feel emboldened to use such hideous weapons (even if this has sometimes been exaggerated), and that Assad has hereby been warned should he do so again increasingly ‘high-value’ targets will be decimated (to keep a moving forward deterrent effect in place); and
• Finally, Obama will make mention that he well understands the U.S. public is tired of Middle East wars, this was the last thing he wanted to do, especially given critical tasks at home, etc. but that he has successfully deescalated us from Iraq and (supposedly) Afghanistan, and that given the egregious implications to standards of international conduct Ghouta presented, he had no choice but to lead the international community (drawing a line on the ‘leading from behind’ Libya precedent while he’s at it) in something akin to a ‘coalition of conscience’, by buttressing the strict taboo against chemical weapons use.
While this all sounds fine and dandy, the problems are many, although I will highlight just a few:
o Even such a calibrated initial campaign (say lasting approximately 36-48 hours) may lead to reactions from Moscow, Tehran or Hezbollah that may materially differ from our expectations (unless we are reaching private understandings in advance whereby Moscow is beginning to drop its client, for example), leading to the risk of greater geopolitical shocks;
o The Assad regime has effectively already gone rogue, and could become more desperate. Despite regime momentum these past months around Qusayr, Homs etc, the past weeks have seen a rebounding resiliency by the opposition, this in conjunction with Obama’s dismal reaction to Sisi’s massacre in Egypt may have led to Damascus’ miscalculation and overly cocksure use of CW, but now feeling more cornered and enfeebled it may calculate it has little to lose via additional, unpredictable actions even post-strikes (I worry about trying to change the ‘narrative’ via ‘damn the torpedoes’ adventurism in Israel, for example);
o It is important that a strategic roadmap be maintained for possible negotiations in Geneva, while no one can snap their fingers and resurrect a Dayton II (hard to believe, but a diplomatic resolution to the Syria conflict would be far more complex than ending the Bosnian conflict for a variety of reasons, nor is Dick Holbrooke around, may he RIP), we should not completely vitiate the prospects of resurrecting a diplomatic track because of the military action we are apparently imminently undertaking;
o There will doubtless be non-military casualties at the hands of American bombs, so-called ‘collateral damage’. Yes, holding Assad accountable for his ghastly CW use is certainly not an ignoble cause, but a death is a death however it comes about, and make no mistake, civilians will die (recall there was a fatality even in Bill Clinton’s dead-of-night pin-prick attack on a Sudanese pharmaceutical facility); and
o What else we just don’t know. Once the die is cast, in what is arguably the most volatile tinder-box on the planet these days, we would be naïve not to expect the unexpected. Most of the time, alas, these are negative, complicating dynamics, not helpful extra tidings of good luck.
All this said, why do I find myself ever so slightly contemplating an apparent bias towards action despite my disgust at the palpable excitement emitting from Washington about our latest Middle East adventure (my Twitter feed will likely soon start updating me on specific national security team member's bowel-movements and what they might portend for Syria war coordination & planning) and trying my best to reckon head-on with our apparent tendency to be doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past?
Here are a half-dozen reasons:
1) I do believe indiscriminate CW use against innocent civilians a terrible disgrace in our day and age, one which cannot be tolerated, even in the context of the painful hypocrisies that more likely died at Sisi’s hands in Rabaa than Assad’s at Ghouta, and we cannot even bring ourselves to suspend aid re the former, whilst we effectively go to war re the latter!;
2) The constant whinging around “credibility” apart (it is true we exaggerate and trot it out too willy-nilly), Assad all but dared Obama on this one, using CW a year after the red-line speech to the very day; to have not done anything would have truly revealed the emperor to have no clothes and sooner or later precipitated an even larger mass chemical attack (read: a ‘Srebrenica moment’);
3) I fear the IDP and refugee flows are becoming so large, and given the additional context of growing instability in Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon and points beyond, we’d have had to grapple with the Syria situation sooner rather than later regardless, so that if the strikes can achieve some deterrent while providing the rebels greater short-term momentum this could achieve dynamics on the ground more amenable to diplomatic follow-on;
4) With most U.S. troops out of Iraq and Israel prepared to deal Hezbollah a devastatingly brutal retaliatory blow, I do not see particularly easy options for Iran to retaliate, nor do I think Rouhani would be keen to do so regardless;
5) I believe Moscow can be mollified if the strikes are contained, proportionate and we energetically attempt to reinsert Moscow into the Geneva process to try to forge some U.S.-Russian condominium on a post-Assad Syria at some future point once the dust settles; and
6) Assad might find himself so consumed with self-preservation he may rein in any temptation towards regional trouble-making (also to try to keep his Russian patron on side as more pliable, predictable client), and revert back to more conventional tactics mostly aimed at literally saving his own skin, as in the end, he could well suffer an inglorious Gadaffi-like, brutish end, while perhaps refraining from more CW-use to avoid further military action from the West.
In short, you might say I could be persuaded the risks of inaction (or, perhaps better stated, long-term implications of doing nothing) could be worse—or at least run neck in neck--with doing something, but I say this frankly extremely torn, very concerned and with tremendous humility looking at our misadventures since 9/11 in each of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and points beyond. This is truly a problem from hell, but I do not believe we can dither from the sidelines any longer, unless we are prepared to more or less wipe our hands of the entire sorry affair. However, cosmetic, feel-good strikes without concerted strategic follow through on pressing issues such as more of a U.S. leadership role and ‘adult supervision’ over the sourcing, training, equipping, funding, and logistics around rebel assistance, aimed at building up the moderates’ capacities as contrasted with the more radical groups (less to necessarily assure 'victory' by the 'good guys'--all moronic concepts here--more to create leverage for resurrection of diplomatic initiatives by pressuring Damascus more on our terms), as well related painstaking diplomatic initiatives revamped at an appropriate juncture and heightened humanitarian assistance, all of these and more will be critical.
We responsibly should not simply bomb for 36 hours, and then go away again. This would likely prove worse than doing nothing. We need to re-engage in a holistic Syria policy that squarely grapples with broader regional dynamics and that ultimately leads to a negotiated solution, a task we’d shirked, but where Assad’s use of CW appears to have forced a reluctant President to more forcefully engage. So if we are going in, we’re going in for more than a few Tomahawks so everyone can get a late August pat on the back that ‘something was done’. It’s not quite Colin Powell’s old so-called Pottery Barn rule: ‘you break it, you own it’. It’s perhaps more here, ‘you bomb it, the breakage is yours too’. Are we up to this? Our national security team? The strategic follow-through? The countless hours of spade-work with allies and, yes, foes? I just don’t know. I am straddling the fence and unsure, but it is one man ultimately who will decide. My thoughts are with him, this may be a more momentous decision than he may wholly realize. I would not begrudge him standing aside, if he feels the ‘roll-in the cavalry’ noises to date have caused Assad to blink already creating a sufficient enough deterrent impact (though this is dubious). He must also ask himself, when he thinks honestly taking his private counsel, whether he believes he and his team really have the appetite and abilities once embarking on this course to actually succeed in it. These are not easy questions. Yet they demand answers and realistic appraisal. As part of that analysis, one must honestly reckon too with the emerging school of thought that we can bifurcate a military action aimed purely to deter on CW, but without enmeshing ourselves in the conflict and attempting to influence broader outcomes. One doubts it could play out so neatly, and such assumptions should be amply stress-tested.
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August 21, 2013
An epidemic in the usage of a locution rendered increasingly meaningless, whether uttered by Presidents, Secretaries of State, U.N. officials, and/or other Western chancelleries. This is just a 'quick and dirty' partial list, there are many more. But it's particularly notable--even in the dog-days of August--how often said phrase has been trotted out for various Egyptian going-ons by Washington players. However, pending further confirmation around the reported chemical attack(s) near Damascus--particularly in respect of the soi disant 'red-line'--this latest statement of deep concern may well be the most egregiously lackadaisical trotting out of the apparently standard-issue verbiage to date.
UPDATE: Re: Syria, we have now moved to "grave concern".
August 17, 2013
August 15, 2013
Obama's Foreign Policy: A Season of Disappointments
It has become a season of disappointments with Barack Obama’s foreign policy. It appears adrift, unserious, above all, lacking any strategic underpinnings, direction, or execution. A quick glance around the globe helps buttress the contention that something is rotten in American foreign policy, urgently requiring redress. But few seem to care, and expectations must remain low. Unsurprisingly, it is most fitting to observe the situation in the wider Middle East. Syria is perhaps most instructive, although Egypt has been calamitous too. Yes, of course, Syria presents the proverbial ‘problem from hell’. The ethnic, sectarian and religious fault-lines of the Levant are maddening in their complexity. Russia, Turkey, Israel, Iran (and her main proxy Hezbollah), among others, have critical interests at play. Yet we seem to have all but wholly abdicated the scene, rolling our hands up in despair.
A noteworthy example was the supposed “red line” around chemical weapons use. After extensive ‘chain of custody’ cogitations, Washington concluded chemical weapons were indeed used by the Syrian regime. But the Administration response seems to indicate it was not this “red line” that precipitated Washington being reluctantly dragged into possibly broader involvement, but the fact that the Syrian regime (along with its ally Hezbollah) had overtaken the pivotal town of Qusayr a couple months back. This victory better allowed for a band of territorial contiguity from Damascus to the Alawite coastal heartlands, while rendering Homs more vulnerable to regime re-conquest. This stark reality, rather than any ‘red-line’, was what appeared to put Washington on more of an activist footing, followed by the decision to have the rebels armed (I suppose I am purposefully using the passive voice here). Whatever one makes of this decision, here too it became a bit of a shambles, with de minimis provision of arms like MANPADs that might make a difference (albeit given prior experience in such equipping forays one understands the reservations), with mostly small arms proffered up instead. Even in this watered down variant, long delivery delays ensued as well.
The net effect was one of small conviction and spine but much contrivance and theatre: was there really a red-line, or was it the fall of Qusayr; were we going to robustly arm the rebels, or kind of half-ass it? And so on. Amidst all the policy-making as directionless, incremental half-measures, nowhere did one get a sense of convincing strategic purpose. Could we more creatively engage with, not only the Jordanians, but also the Turks, in creating safe-zones near those borders that would provide more international legitimacy to the opposition (disparate as it is), and create at least somewhat greater leverage and control over rebel elements, rather than the hardened al-Qaeda affiliated radicals whom through their brute courage and determination are now winning at least some hearts and minds? Was our diplomacy with Moscow robust and creative enough (deal-making around Tartous, as one example), or did it lack imagination and energy?
Yes, it’s easy to be an arm-chair critic, but it’s truly hard to avoid sensing that our Syria policy lacks any strategic direction undergirding it. If we wish to wash our hands of the affair, so be it, and let’s do so. At least this would be honest. But if we mean to have influence on the outcome, the mish-mash of “policy” we have seen to date is something of a mockery; playing pretend we are doing something convincing when really we are doing anything but.
But we should not have been surprised. We have seen similar cynical behavior before from this Administration. One example was of course Afghanistan. While Obama should certainly be lauded for looking to extricate us from this morass (which has now lasted longer than WWI and WWII combined), he did so only after a "surge" implemented after he already knew nothing remotely commensurate with a “victory” was attainable. Frankly every American service-person who died as part of said surge died not for a mistake we only learned about later, but one that was already assuredly clear to the Commander-in-Chief (indeed he’d prominently campaigned on such very themes). As Obama's own Secretary of State said many decades ago about another conflict in a far-away land: how do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?
Meantime, in Iraq, again we must laud Obama for forging and executing a robust exit strategy. And yet, all sentient observers were aware to pull out the vast majority of U.S. forces would leave a tremendous security vacuum. To help alleviate the risks of radicals (both Sunni and Shi’a) looking to re-enter the fray, at a minimum the Administration should if anything have been doubly focused on the deteriorating situation in Syria, not least given the spill-over impact (in both directions) to Iraq. And East of Iraq, rather than West, we have seen a screaming lack of creativity with regard to engagement with Iran, even after the Rouhani victory. All the Beltway mavens certainly have earned their A minuses and B pluses for sanctions implementation, but to what end? Iran is closer to a bomb, our influence as negligible as ever, with the persons suffering the most Iranians on the street not complicit in the regime’s crimes.
Elsewhere in the broader MENA region, the latest policy foibles have been simply disgraceful with respect to Egypt. Egyptian security forces now on three occasions have mowed down innocent protestors in cold blood, the last episode constituting something of an Egyptian Tiananmen. There has been much handwringing behind closed doors in Washington, doubtless, but foreign policy on the matter to date has been delegated out to the Deputies level (albeit the extremely able Deputy Secretary William Burns) as well reportedly circular, non-productive calls between Secretary of Defense Hagel and the de facto Egyptian leader, Sisi. The National Security Advisor –whose skill-sets do not appear particularly compelling---does not appear to be brokering an inter-agency policy of any ingenuity or note, though she does ring up the President with bad news on the Vineyard ably. Meantime, the Secretary of State waded into the morass with the offensively off-base comment that the Egyptian Army was “restoring democracy”, when the truth was quite the opposite, given they have engaged in tactics that reek of a crude, fascistic crushing of dissent. Such Washington tea-leaves apart, fundamentally, did Sisi simply take the measure of Obama, and calculate he could massacre half a thousand (and counting) souls in cold blood, and not pay any real consequence for it beyond wrist-slaps to placate critics and such feel-good empty gestures?
What would matter to Sisi, or at least get his attention, is to put an end to the masquerade that we have not witnessed a bald-faced coup. Through it all, alas, apparently overly jittery about the implications to Israeli security (Sinai, Camp David Accords, Muslim Brotherhood’s Hamas cousins), as well the damage that too much non-ancien regime 'fluidity' in Egypt might visit on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations (a rare recent success, with kudos due the Secretary of State, though Israel’s perennially poorly timed continued settlement expansion is not helping the lift-off much), we have not dared call the coup a coup. Legally, of course, the events of July 3rd were prima facie a coup, and morally too we should now feel well obligated with these latest mass killings to strip the Egyptian Army of the pretense there is some democratic interim governance in place beyond a fig-leaf masking the Army's brute putsch (see too the recent reinstitution of various military and Mubarak legacy cronies in key positions), all predictable fodder that I'd touched on before here. Regardless, however, if moral or legal arguments do not sway, even on realist grounds we should be designating the events a coup, as the brazen robbery of the Brotherhood’s ballot box victory--at such a critical juncture in the Arab uprisings—will now resonate profoundly with respect to the Islamic disenfranchisement narrative, with clear and present ‘blow-back’ risks to our interests, especially in the face of such horrific massacres.
Beyond MENA, the Administration’s track record has been little better. Any return on investment regarding one of the Administration's most touted 'signature' initiatives, the so-called Russia ‘re-set’, has been largely laid to waste in a fit of Edward Snowden pique (don't buy the spin other reasons were material to the decision to cancel the summit). Meantime, the NSA revelations have further harmed our moral standing (we clearly care not a whit about the privacy rights of ‘fur’ners’, as our friends in Europe and Latin America have learned), and Obama’s inability to execute on his pledge to close Guantanamo is not a tale of manifold complexity rendering it impossible, but ultimately a contemptible inability to grasp the nettle, strategically execute, and get the bloody job done. On China, the “pivot” too often smells like neo-containment to Beijing, and too little fulsome dialogue between the parties exists to provide a more constructive basis for trust-building between the existing “superpower” and its nearest rival. The point here is that strategic missteps (or, at best, disjointed, suboptimal execution) is not just a tale of MENA woes amidst the wild cauldron of the Arab uprisings, but has manifested itself in more 'structured' major power relationships as well, whether Beijing, Moscow, or others.
All this said, the President does have one thing going in his favor. The opposition party would have mounted an even more disastrous foreign policy, I suspect, proactively blundering about saber-rattling with the usual recycled neo-con nostrums, bogging us down in even more theaters than at present. Obama at least has spared us these indignities, ‘leading from behind’ adventures like Libya (and its ugly hangovers) apart. But it is not a particularly proud legacy to say ‘at least I was better than the other guy would have been’. This is not the stuff of a great Presidency, at least when it comes to foreign policy. Of course, there has been and is much work to accomplish at home, and while not the topic here, whether jobs, infrastructure, Wall Street reform, and more; we should not conclude the Administration necessarily covered itself in glory there either, beyond the easy myths that 'but for' pork-infested stimulus, QE-infinity and serial bailouts Great Depression II beckoned (this is not to take away from the gravity of the economic situation we faced in late '08 and early '09, nor some of the Administration's crisis management at the time, or indeed, the prior Administration's). But while I understand a great power can only remain so from a base of strongly rooted strength at home, and Obama’s apparent focus on domestic politics therefore is not ill-advised, it is another thing to look alternatively peeved, bored, listless and simply largely adrift on foreign policy. Leaders, whether Sisi or Putin, have noticed. We simply must do better, and please, this does not mean better, or more, speeches. It means strategic execution of statecraft in a turbulent epoch of geopolitical transition, one of the Presidency’s most solemn responsibilities, or at least one might hope, a solemn aspiration. And its manifest absence represents a season of disappointments the international community can ill afford at this juncture.
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July 27, 2013
The Interior Minister Speaketh
UPDATE: Important related context from the FT here.
A Coup That Will Resonate Far Beyond Tahrir
The mood was festive as the dim, bearded President Morsi and his equally bovine Muslim Brotherhood cadres--or so the caricature we are told by comme il faut Cairenes--were carted out on the backs of a supposed Revolution 2.0 on June 30th. The buffoonish Egyptian press went into jubilant tizzy, the Tamarrod twitterers into an orgy of self-righteous contentment (strikingly unawares of their abject kow-towing to the military and deep state behind), and the West looked on, at best with cautious incrementalism, at worst in abject cluelessness. For good measure, David Brooks helpfully chimed in, averring that Islamists "lack the mental equipment to govern" (left unsaid was what this showcased about other's ''mental equipment").
As developments progressed amidst these assorted enthusiasms, the prima facie proof this was a coup full stop was clear to all but those purposefully deluding themselves. Still, to the annals of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ or such Orwellian verbal mish-mash, we can now add the notion of a ‘popular impeachment’. Hill notables issued such clap-trap. The Administration, perhaps priding itself on a dose of Scowcroftian realpolitik (deluded, if so), instead retreated into a disingenuous bunker of silence, no one daring utter the dreaded “c” word. Israel lobbied, of course, that such a designation not be made (Morsi too cozy with their Hamas cousins, Sinai security risks, and in a worst case scenario, sacrosanct pillars like Camp David coming into starker relief). But even cynical observers must have been surprised by the Administration’s ultimate tack, wholly avoiding having to designate it a coup or not, as go figure, we simply wouldn’t broach the issue! Call it the ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ school of foreign policy. As Noah Feldman reminds us, however, the President of the United States does have an obligation to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed” (well, I suppose that ship had already sailed, ex-legacy con law trappings).
As Washington cowers, with wrist-slaps on delayed F-16 deliveries and such, while Sisi and Co. are doubtless told to ‘hold tight’ and ‘course correct’ the revolution (by a reactionary counter-revolution!), the Egyptian Army is getting down to old-fashioned, brass-tacks business on the boulevards of Egypt’s cities. In tactics that will make Bashar al-Asad feel Damascus and Cairo are enjoying kindred moments amidst the hot summer months, snipers are shooting to kill, and doing quite well at it, with scores dead on Egypt’s streets (to date, at least, Egypt’s Army only uses its airpower to wow the Tahrir bevy with air shows, not bombardments a la Bashar). These massacres carry the stench of a brutish military trying to quash the opposition because they realize that the teeming slums of Egypt’s cities reveal much support for President Morsi, now under protracted arrest whereabouts unknown, but likely now housed near former President Mubarak, in a neat historical touch. After all, the man won 52% of the vote, like it or not. As for his bungling performance in office, what sentient individual in these United States wouldn’t have liked to mount a ‘popular impeachment’ amidst Dubya’s strikingly horrific stewardship of the levers of power, whether Katrina, Abu Ghraib, Rumsfeld’s dereliction, and Cheney’s despicable usurpation of the Executive? But, alas, one must wait for elections, at least if we are going to play pretend we are in the throes of a democratic “liberal” revolution.
Why should we care? These going-ons are taking place in far-away Arab lands, and summer entertainment might be more easily had by the pitiable Carlos Danger's vying for ink for sexting near-minors and such, like incredibly needy cretins. Well, for one, Egypt represents the beating epicenter of the entire Arab world and is the paramount, central actor in the denouement of the Arab Spring, such as it is. The enthusiasm by which Riyadh turned on the dollar spigot to Sisi’s gang should tell us all we need to know regarding the reactive forces at play. As blood spills, trumped up charges that are bogus in the extreme are lobbed at Morsi, and the crack-down intensifies in general, is the risk of mass Islamic disenchantment during the most high profile episode of the Arab uprisings not manifestly clear?
Of course, this is a mug’s game, and whatever the U.S. did (or didn’t) each side will be dissatisfied. But the singular implications of the Egyptian uprising all but demanded a more robust American reaction defending the integrity of the ballot-box, even if just pretending to muster some spine, rather than speaking of a naked coup as constituting some enlightened “second chance” for the revolution. How is an effective putsch to accomplish that, no matter how Westernized the technocrats that will preen about the instrumentalities of government power looking to unlock IMF funds, while Sisi and the Army control the real levers?
Foggy Bottom, the Pentagon and the White House will delude themselves that we are retaining ‘leverage’ over Sisi and will control outcomes, but our supine compliance to date has spoken volumes. The Generals get it, and they are getting on with it. The Islamists, if Egypt doesn’t descend into full-bore civil war, will remember, as they go into ‘hiding’. Another chapter in Islamist rejection is being written, this time vividly with respect to participatory democracy given their victory was stolen, and while we were never meant to be central players, and indeed must be cautious, there are nonetheless times where fecklessness of this magnitude will backfire to our detriment.
It is a quiet summer weekend down in Washington, and I shudder to think about the quality of the ‘Egypt discussion’ on the Sunday shows (to extent even broached), but this much is clear: the violence committed today, whether dozens, scores, over a hundred or more dead; was grotesque and unwarranted. It speaks to a military conscious of its eroding legitimacy (and this already during the immediate post-June 30th honeymoon period), likely increasingly fearful of the specter of civil war and, irrespective, feeling far too entitled to use brute force to quash dissent to try to avoid greater tumult. It is high time to signal to Egypt’s real power brokers (not some risibly figure-head President) that the implications of such continued conduct will have real ramifications, starting by what all but the willfully blind across the world know to be true: have the cojones to call a coup a coup.
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June 30, 2013
For any stalwarts still frequenting this space please note I've opened up a Twitter account as well. You can find it here. It will likely be somewhat more active than B.D. in the near term given time constraints on longer pieces. Frankly, as any long-time reader will appreciate, writing fewer than 140 characters might prove something of a challenge for me, but I'm galvanized to give it a go!
June 16, 2013
"We have rich oversight across three branches of government. I’ve got an [inspector general] here, a fairly robust legal staff here . . . and there’s the Justice Department’s national security division...For those things done under court jurisdiction, the courts are intrusive in my business, appropriately so, and there are two congressional committees. It’s a belts-and-suspenders-and-Velcro approach, and inside there’s rich auditing.”
Forgive me that I'm commenting in haste, and I hope to have more soon, but my first reaction reading this was to recall a splendid footnote from Michael Lewis' "The Big Short":
Wall Street firms like to say they build Chinese walls to keep information about customer trading from leaking to their own proprietary trading. Vincent Daniel of FrontPoint Partners offered the most succinct response to this pretense: “When I hear ‘Chinese wall,’ I think, ‘You’re a fucking liar.’”
I mean "fairly robust", "belt and suspenders" & "rich auditing" were already pretty rich (pun unintended), but Velcro too? The lady doth protest too much, methinks.
January 10, 2013
Chuck Hagel Is Mainstream, Except Where It Counts
I suppose this will not come as a huge surprise, but Belgravia Dispatch is delighted that President Obama has officially nominated Chuck Hagel to serve as his Secretary of Defense. I agree with much that Tom Friedman had written in his Christmas Day column entitled "Give Chuck a Chance", albeit with one caveat. Friedman had written: “(s)o, yes, Hagel is out of the mainstream. That is exactly why his voice would be valuable right now. President Obama will still make all the final calls, but let him do so after having heard all the alternatives.”[emphasis added]
Posturing aside, I do not understand how Hagel can be out of the “mainstream”, unless one means the suffocating clutches of supine group-think that have eviscerated much of the foreign policy class. I believe skepticism about a military adventure in Iran is eminently “mainstream”. Indeed, I would go further, and would think that fuller consideration of a “containment” doctrine vis-à-vis Iran should be “mainstream” too—if ultimately diplomacy and sanctions were to run aground, only leaving potentially less desirable military options, and as done with arch-foes in the past of far greater geopolitical strength than Iran (even if the President has ostensibly removed this policy option from the table). I believe skepticism about unilateral Iran sanctions—as compared to the multilateral variety that Hagel more typically has supported—is “mainstream” and indeed, far more intelligent, as unilateral sanctions can be avoided with ease and so have materially less bite.
I believe looking to aggressively haircut the, yes, “bloated” Pentagon budget is “mainstream”, especially in this era of mammoth deficits and looming austerity. I believe suggesting we might wish to dialogue (and/or suggest our allies do so) with increasingly prominent Islamist groups—whether the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, or its close cousin Hamas in Gaza, as “mainstream” as—like it or not—one is sometimes better positioned negotiating with hostile entities (as we might well do, for instance, with the Taliban in Afghanistan, or we did with Iran over Afghanistan issues post 9/11, among many other examples), indeed not least, to explore potential fissures and divisions within such movements, as well as to help bolster the security posture of our allies via such dialogues, whether sitting in Kabul or, for that matter, Tel Aviv.
I also think it “mainstream” (if not within the halls of our Congress, alas) to not willy-nilly sign off on every letter and/or resolution that is the effective equivalent—in terms of real value add—as name-calling in the school playground, as opposed to being more focused on more constructive policy-making initiatives (or, as Hagel put it to Aaron David Miller: “AIPAC comes knocking with a pro-Israel letter, and ‘then you’ll get 80 to 90 senators on it. I don’t think I’ve ever signed one of the letters.’ When someone would accuse him of not being pro-Israel because he didn’t sign the letter, Hagel told me [Miller] he responds: “I didn’t sign the letter because it was a stupid letter.")
Finally, I believe it “mainstream” to have questioned the wisdom not only of the Iraq surge, but also of the Afghanistan one, neither of which in my view merited the expenditure in blood and treasure, all things considered.
There has also been the matter of an unfortunate comment Mr. Hagel made about a decade and a half ago about a homosexual individual up for an Ambassadorial nomination, one James Hormel. Prominent gay voices like Andrew Sullivan and Steve Clemons have provided further context there, and I would defer to their views and acceptance of Mr. Hagel’s apology.
Additionally, Mr. Hagel had the misfortune of describing AIPAC as a “Jewish lobby”. The “Israeli lobby” is the preferred locution, as there are non-Jews who make up part of the lobby. Fair enough, although I am puzzled by comments like Senator John McCain’s, for instance: "There's no such thing as a Jewish lobby…There's an Armenian lobby, there's not a Jewish lobby. There's an Israeli lobby. It's called AIPAC, very influential.” So there are no non-Armenians who perhaps out of pro-Christian sentiment favor Armenian-related causes and assist John McCain’s self-described “Armenian lobby”? Or, inversely, regarding Turkish-Americans, there are no non-Turkish background U.S. nationals whom might be part of that particular lobby? And none of those Armenians and/or Turkish-Americans might have different views than ‘their’ lobbies, as we’ve heard critics of Mr. Hagel’s phraseology protest about his reference to a “Jewish lobby”? And what of the Taiwanese-American lobby, or the Polish-American lobby, or say the Cuban-American lobby? Adopting such usages, I suppose Israeli-American lobby—rather than, say, Jewish-American, might be best in class verbiage here, all told? But, really, we are all dancing on the head of a pin some respecting such nomenclature, aren’t we? Perhaps Mr. Hagel might better have said to Aaron David Miller something like: “certain segments of the American Jewish community strongly support AIPAC, along with non-Jewish allies of theirs to include notably some Christian evangelicals, and collectively they have a good deal of influence in Washington, but not dissimilarly than other powerful lobbies like the NRA, so that their influence is probably overstated by some, and understated by others, but regardless, I take my cues on Middle East policy from my head and gut in the context of what I think best serves the U.S. national interest, as I see it, but with due regard to balancing the interests of various allies, and the overall regional situation, but…” Well, you get my point, no? Rather a mouthful. I think J-Street puts it pretty well stating: “Smear a Bagel, not Chuck Hagel”. So let’s be clear: I do not think there is an anti-Semitic bone in Chuck Hagel’s body, and with all due respect to august bodies like the Council on Foreign Relations, I am chagrined they see fit to publish such crudely baiting fare (it should be beneath the Council to publish such material: “(p)erhaps there are answers, and perhaps Mr. Hagel actually has no problem with ‘the Jews’ ").
Regardless, I am sure Mr. Hagel will have more than ample opportunity to clarify his particular phraseology on this point, given that the specter of poor Mr. Hagel’s nomination has left us with the predictable spectacles of soi disant foreign policy notables like Lindsay Graham opining his nomination is an “in your face” selection while parroting Friedman stating: “(q)uite frankly, Chuck Hagel is out of the mainstream of thinking I believe on most issues regarding foreign policy…” (“quite frankly” typically a dead give-away inanities are about to spew to score political points, as here, regurgitation of the laughable talking point that Hagel is somehow a “fringe” player, not to be trusted with the levers of power at the Pentagon). Graham went on to say, incredibly, that Hagel would be the “most antagonistic secretary of Defense toward the state of Israel in our nation’s history”. Really? What about President Truman’s Secretary of Defense, James Forrestal, who argued against the partition of Palestine? Ironically, for advocating such positions and stating: "...no group in this country should be permitted to influence our policy to the point it could endanger our national security”, Forrestal got what we might call a precursor to the ‘Hagel treatment’, to the extent that the U.S. Ambassador to Israel James G. McDonald wrote in 1951 describing the attacks on Forrestal as "unjustifiable", "persistent and venomous" and "among the ugliest example of the willingness of politicians and publicists to use the vilest means - in the name of patriotism - to destroy self-sacrificing and devoted public servants.” Le plus ca change.
But I digress. Mr. Friedman, apparently unwittingly, will have supplied varied Congressional ignoramuses with their sound-bites for the nomination fight. Out of the mainstream! Why? Because he's an Israel-hater! A Hezbollah lover! But Hagel is solid enough to beat back this clap-trap amidst the soap-box theater, and I suspect he will grind it through. Indeed, such handicapping is likely one reason why AIPAC has apparently decided to sit this one out, but also I suspect, senior, reasonable and intelligent AIPAC personnel must well realize that Mr. Hagel has voted for some approximately USD 40 billion of aid to Israel over the years, is staunchly committed to its security, and will not disavow the special relationship with Israel, if perhaps not treating is as a quasi-exclusive one as much as some of his predecessors. Put simply, Hagel believes in an Israeli state living peacefully side by side with a Palestinian one in the future, as opposed to careening from conflict to conflict every 5-10 years, and in a highly unsettled region. Shouldn’t we all have that as our goal?
Yes, I realize with the very real security considerations posed by Iran’s nuclear program there is some discomfort about Hagel’s views on aspects of Iran policy. Indeed, if one were to cut out all the noise and imminent Washington burlesque, this is likeliest where genuine policy differences should be aired most vigorously in the confirmation hearings. Hagel, to be sure, has seen war very up close and personal. He doubtless ascribes some to the school of thought, as Winston Churchill aptly put it: “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war”, certainly more than some of our arm-chair quarterbacks who likely never gave much of a toss for the grunts on the ground risking their lives on misguided crusades (in sharp distinction to Hagel who will pay special heed to the needs of active personnel and veterans). But Hagel is not some pacifist, anti-war activist. He has voted to support use of force, on various occasions. But regarding Iran, and as he put it in an excellent speech on Iran policy:
The United States needs to weigh very carefully its actions regarding Iran. In a hazy, hair-triggered environment, careless rhetoric and military movements that one side may believe are required to demonstrate resolve and strength…can be misinterpreted as preparations for military options. The risk of inadvertent conflict because of miscalculation is great. The United States must be cautious and wise not to follow the same destructive path on Iran as we did on Iraq. We blundered into Iraq because of flawed intelligence, flawed assumptions, flawed judgments, and questionable intentions. The United States must find a new regional diplomatic strategy to deal with Iran that integrates our regional allies, military power and economic leverage.
I must confess I find nothing particularly objectionable in such thinking whatsoever, but by all means, let the distinguished Senators have at it and robustly discuss substantive differences on Iran policy, or the Pentagon budget, or the rise of China’s Navy, or myriad other topics—but not cheaply tar this public servant with suggestive smears.
All this said, it is true that Hagel is sometimes “out of the mainstream.” He was out of the “mainstream” to have earned two “Purple Hearts” serving in Vietnam (see too this story about the reportedly unique fact that Hagel and his brother served in the very same infantry squad, and quite literally saved each other’s lives). Few of his critics have performed in uniform with such valor, indeed many of them have not even served at all. It speaks to real courage. And it is similarly out of the mainstream to have the backbone, conviction and spine to stand apart from the crowd some and sometimes call out the BS, which Hagel’s occasionally blunt style has not infrequently allowed. Good on him, and good luck to him and the Administration navigating the confirmation process through to a successful confirmation vote. At the end of the day, I think smart money says Hagel will get the job, as he most assuredly deserves and is qualified for, and given the campaign against him consists more of thinly veiled canards than hard facts. These United States will survive. Israel will survive. Indeed, I think the security posture of both will be enhanced by Hagel’s stewardship of the Pentagon. And, speaking of, we will have a Secretary of Defense who, as Ryan Crocker put it aptly, “would run the Defense Department; it would not run him”, which as we all know, is no small feat.
January 04, 2013
The Sandy Hook School Massacre
I was reminded after the horrific schoolhouse massacre in Connecticut late last year of a passage in Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. Beyond the sheer carnage, perhaps it was too heartrending aspects of the aftermath such as the moving footage of one of the bereaved fathers emotionally paying tribute to his lost daughter, or that another of the slain six year olds was herself slated to play an angel in the town's annual Christmas pageant. Given such poignant details and regardless of whether one is particularly faithful, the passage where the 'elder'* Zosima provides comfort to a woman who has just lost her three year old son seems somewhat apropos. Important to note, Dostoevsky and his wife Anna Grigorievna had just suffered a very similar loss (their own three year old), so that the passage is somewhat autobiographical. The excerpt is below, from Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky's transcendent translation (at pp. 49-50):
“Listen, mother,” said the elder. “Once, long ago, a great saint saw a mother in church, weeping just as you are over her child, whom the Lord had also called to him. ‘Do you not know,’ the saint said to her, ‘how bold these infants are before the throne of God? No one is bolder in the Kingdom of Heaven: Lord, you granted us life, they say to God, and just as we beheld it, you took it back from us. And they beg and plead so boldly that the Lord immediately puts them in the ranks of the angels. And therefore,’ said the saint, ‘you, too, woman, rejoice and do not weep. Your infant, too, now abides with the Lord in the host of his angels.’ That is what a saint said to a weeping woman in ancient times. he was a great saint and would not have hold her a lie. Therefore you, too, mother, know that your infant, too, surely now stands before the throne of the Lord, rejoicing and being glad, and praying to God for you. Weep, then, but also rejoice.”
Dostoevsky returns to the theme in other parts of the book, for instance (at p. 292):
God restores Job again, gives him wealth anew; once more many years pass, and he has new children, different ones, and he loves them--Oh Lord, one thinks, "but how could he so love those new ones, when his former children are no more, when he has lost them? Remembering them, was it possible for him to be fully happy, as he had been before, with the new ones, however dear they might be to him? But it is possible, it is possible: the old grief, by a great mystey of human life, gradually passes into quiet, tender joy; instead of young, ebullient blood comes a mild, serene old age: I bless the sun's rising each day and my heart sings to it as before, but now I love its setting even more, its long slanting rays, and with them quiet, mild, tender memories, dear images from the whole of a long and blessed life--and over all is God's truth, moving, reconciling, all-forgiving!”
Indeed, the very novel's dedication (to this wife Anna) reads: "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit" (John 12:24).
During episodes such as these, I prefer to turn to such perspectives than those of abysmal hacks carping on about Rupert Murdoch's pro-gun regulation tweets, as they merrily turn against their former patrons amidst the internecine shrieks. Anyone who denies the epidemic of gun violence is a national issue of utmost import requiring multi-faceted solutions (yes, to include greater regulation as part of the overall approach, and not just talk of armed guards and 'concealed carry' as supposed panaceas) does not merit much, if any, serious attention.
* The concept of the 'elder' might have been partly inspired by Paissy Velichkovsky, the so-called 'father of the Russian elders.' Related, and as one of the end-notes to the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation also states: "Dostoevsky owned a copy of the 1854 edition of Velichkovsky's translation of the homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian, a seventh-century monk...St. Isaac, whose spiritual influence has been very great, seems also to have influenced Dostoevsky's elder Zosima."
** The Dostoevsky's deceased child was also named Alexei. Additionally, as another end-note clarifies: "St. Alexis, a Greek anchorite who died around 412 A.D., is much loved in Russia, where he is known as "Alexei, the man of God." And, of course, the book's protagonist is named Alexei (Alyosha) Karamazov, and is on occasion referred to as a "man of God" by the author.
September 12, 2012
The Romney Campaign's Smallness
The Romney campaign has certainly not distinguished itself over the past 24-48 hours with respect to commenting on Middle East policy issues. Consider the following two episodes:
1) As reported in the New York Times, after the latest fracas between Obama and Netanyahu, a Romney advisor states:
Mr. Romney had no immediate comment about Mr. Netanyahu’s challenge to Mr. Obama, and one of his informal advisers on the Middle East said, “It’s probably better at this point to let Netanyahu make the point because it’s more powerful that way.” The adviser said he was not authorized to speak on the record. [my emphasis]
So let’s get this straight. First, no one is willing to comment on the record. Second, they double down on this cowardly posture by stating it is better to let a foreign leader beat up on the United States’ current sitting President than the campaign itself. That it's more "powerful that way"? Quite classy. A few decades back, this would have been unthinkable. Forget about politics stopping at the water’s edge, this is an opposition party essentially openly siding with a foreign leader's world view on one of the leading geopolitical issues of the day.
2) Next, there is the tragedy of the events in Benghazi (and Cairo), which given the death of Ambassador Stevens and his colleagues, I will refrain from commenting on the deep ironies thereto with respect to our recent misadventure in Libya. Of course no such dignity from the Romney campaign, who lept on some Tweets from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo to contend that the Obama Administration’s first reaction was one of, you guessed it, weak-kneed appeasement and sympathy with the enemy (and on the anniversary of 9/11 to boot!).
Apparently some of the offending tweets were as follows:
We condemn the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims— US Embassy Cairo (@USEmbassyCairo) September 11, 2012
This morning's condemnation (issued before protest began) still stands. As does our condemnation of unjustified breach of the Embassy.
How horrific, and really, isn’t this execrable filmmaker (one Sam Bacile) also worthy of a condemnation or two amidst all the fall-out from his disgustingly moronic, self-indulgent “documentary”?
The US Embassy in Cairo went on to Tweet:
Of course we condemn breaches of our compound, we're the ones actually living through this.
Sorry, but neither breaches of our compound or angry messages will dissuade us from defending freedom of speech AND criticizing bigotry.
Nice reminders that those Tweeting from Cairo are actually on the ground dealing with the aftermath, and that denigrating, bigoted trash helped set off this conflagration, although, of course, there is zero excuse for resorting to such violence and attacking U.S. government interests as a result.
Meantime, here’s what the President himself said, rather than whomever is running the Tweeting out of Cairo (not incapably, in my view):
I strongly condemn the outrageous attack on our diplomatic facility in Benghazi, which took the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. Right now, the American people have the families of those we lost in our thoughts and prayers. They exemplified America’s commitment to freedom, justice, and partnership with nations and people around the globe, and stand in stark contrast to those who callously took their lives.
I’ll let the statement speak for itself.
Amidst all this, Romney, who couldn’t even embargo his statement until 9/11 had passed (and might have summoned a tad more elegance if he’d over-nighted it & realized the first sitting U.S. Ambassador since 1979 had died), reels out this statement : “It's disgraceful that the Obama Administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”
No, what’s disgraceful are these two episodes highlighted above. But it’s OK, it makes Romney and his team look desperately small. More please.
September 11, 2012
Hit the Road, Niall
In the annals of partisan hackery few pieces of late have been as ridden with inaccuracies, half-truths and flawed logic as Niall Ferguson's August piece in Newsweek, certainly one that brimmed with as much cocksureness and self-contentedness so as to verge on the solipsistic (Mr. Ferguson accuses President Obama of having a “solipsistic narrative” but he might be better served to look in the mirror). Ferguson assures us he was a “good loser four years ago” with respect to his ill-fated support of John McCain, but this time, “fired up,” he wants the Romney-Ryan ticket “badly to win”. In this misguided “fired up” zeal, Tina Brown provided him the perfect middlebrow forum in which to embarrass himself, and rather “badly”, I dare say. The misrepresentations (I am being generous) crossed with subsequent nakedly transparent and disingenuous CYA with respect to distorted contentions that health-care reform costs were accretive to the federal deficit have been amply documented, here (Paul Krugman), here (Ezra Klein ) and here (Matthew O’Brien). I have occasionally wondered since the article’s publication whether Newsweek had deigned to issue a correction, but was dubious enough given Newsweek’s pedestrianism to not waste my time checking, nor I’d wagered would Niall bother to, of late in defiant crouch, ostensibly above the whimsical niceties of eating some humble pie when caught with his hands in a partisan spin cookie jar large enough to make even the rotund grotesqueries of an El Rushbo-type blush.
But let us not further detain ourselves with the crude arithmetical rigging of isolating in a vacuum costs of the insurance-coverage provisions of The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (that dastardly Obamacare, always good for a rabble-rouse or two) deployed to help score rhetorical points in furtherance of Ferguson’s charmingly school-boy bromance with Paul Ryan (of which more below) as there is so much more in his piece that merits rebuttal. Let’s start with a point where I actually agree with Niall, where he writes, “[I]t is five years since the financial crisis began, but the central problems—excessive financial concentration and excessive financial leverage—have not been addressed.” True, Dodd-Frank is something of a travesty (for one, the regulators will ultimately almost inevitably be outsmarted by the banks), and what was required was a dismantling of the large banks and a resurrection of Glass-Steagall (as even Sandy Weill recently advocated for, in a wondrous chutzpah-on-steroids cogitation on CNBC) but a small question for Niall: does he remotely believe that Mitt Romney—who if nothing else has dutifully signaled he will be every bit the willing handmaiden and apparatchik to Wall Street—would even begin to consider such dramatic moves? Of course not, you can be certain. Indeed, the only major candidate in the Republican field who indicated he might so countenance (that is, if I can recall the surreal burlesque of the Republican imbeciles trotted out during the primary season, candidly it’s all a bit of a haze) was one Jon Hunstman. Rather, Romney would strip out whatever small teeth might survive Dodd-Frank’s ‘comment period’ (e.g., whatever the legions of lawyers for the bulge-bracket banks couldn’t excise from, say, the already tottering and embarrassingly diluted Volcker Rule), in the supposed furtherance of removing policy uncertainty, regulatory headwinds and such, so that “business confidence” would miraculously reappear on the corporate budgeting and investment scene. Were it only so easy, and were it even remotely possible that a Romney-Ryan ticket would pursue such policies! As for Niall’s whine regarding levered-up banks, at least Obama is supportive of the enhanced Basel III regime, and again I ask: would Romney impose stricter leverage requirements than Basel III legislates on the likes of Morgan Stanley or JP Morgan? If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge to sell you, keeping in mind Romney’s assiduous Manhattan money-raising, in the very precincts most moan-heavy and aggrieved by the cruel slights of Basel.
But Mr. Ferguson was just getting started, saving his ‘deep think’ for the latter part of the piece. He ponderously—and, I’m afraid, emptily--proclaims to the masses from Cambridge: “The failures of leadership on economic and fiscal policy over the past four years have had geopolitical consequences…For me the President’s greatest failure has been not to think through the implications of these challenges to American power”. If one were hoping for an intelligent critique of the President’s foreign policy (a policy that is certainly not flawless, but nonetheless materially under-rated), their hopes would have been cruelly dashed, alas, with readers instead subjected to a sophomoric world view that seems to cross neo-Victorian nostalgia with Risk (meaning Hasbro’s board game, not strategic risk mitigation). Mr. Ferguson’s attempted targets range from Obama’s Asia “pivot”, to his Cairo speech, on to his analysis of Obama’s (non)-interventions in Iran, Tunisia (!), Egypt, Libya (leading from behind, etc) and Syria, before ending his foreign policy musings ruing the erosion of nation-building in favor of drone-strikes. Let us take each briefly in turn.
While I myself had expressed some skepticism about Obama’s Asia pivot, to include deployment of Marines in Australia, this basing decision did not come in a vacuum, but rather was accompanied by other roughly contemporaneous policy moves, including an intrepid re-invigoration of relations with Myanmar, support signaled to key allies regarding territorial disputes with China, and more. While I think our policy vis-à-vis China is rife with possible room for mutual miscalculation and distrust (see this excellent piece for more), I certainly do not think Romney’s empty China-bashing a superior approach, nor have I seen a smidgen of any indication that a Romney Administration would out-perform Obama’s on China policy. So while I can certainly agree PRC policy needs to be ameliorated, rationalized and above all better communicated and ‘socialized’ with our diplomatic counterparts in Beijing (whomever is in the Oval Office next January), I cannot for the life of me see how assorted China chest-thumping by Romneyites would help the situation any. If I’m missing something here beyond yelping "currency manipulator" and “Day 1” and “cheater” to pander a few votes from the Panda-phobes (even discounting for political silly season), Ferguson should step up and tell us what dramatic value-add Romney will bring to the table on PRC policy. I see none whatsoever, whatever derisive poo-pooing Niall chooses to dish out with respect to the so-called “pivot”, which incidentally, at very least signals to the international community we are not hell-bent on more deeply enmeshing ourselves in pointless nation-building in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.
Ferguson than sees fit to remonstrate Obama for his Cairo speech, which he describes as an “especially clumsy bid to ingratiate himself on what proved to be the eve of a regional revolution”. Per Niall’s caricature, Mousavi’s Green Movement was a direct harbinger of Cairo to come, and basically Obama was asleep at the wheel, uttering sweet nothings at Al-Azhar. Sorry, but this is claptrap. As I explained here, Egypt exploded after Tunisia, with any direct causation to Iran debatable at best. Beyond this, and far more important than academic debates around causation, to have waded forcefully into the Iranian situation would have had precisely the opposite impact that we’d have wished for, as I laid out at the time in some detail here. Now, while it is true our somewhat ad hoc policy of ‘differentiation’ in our responses to the Arab Spring (over-deference to Saudi Arabian views on Bahrain, for instance, versus at the other extreme Bernard-Henri Levy worthy Libya-jingo, albeit only from ‘behind’, to the disappointment of the post-Trotskyites at the Weekly Standard) has not exactly overwhelmed with its strategic coherence, the recycled ‘bomb Iran’ incantations of post-McCain Republicans are not terribly confidence inspiring either. To stress, absent blow-hards making the rounds at venues like Morning Joe assuring they’d have a panacea-like solution to Syria, I’ve seen precious little (well, nothing) by way of intelligent policy prescriptions emitting from the Romney campaign when it comes to Middle East policy, whether the Arab Spring, the Arab-Israeli peace process (to the extent they even believe in said process, rather than perennially genuflecting to the Likud Wing of the Israeli polity), or even a more intelligent approach to Afghanistan, let alone Syria. As for the Cairo speech, while it may annoy Niall that a refutation of the excesses of neo-conservatism was well needed at that juncture, particularly those conflating Islam as the next ‘ism’ requiring American opposition (in a manner erroneously akin to communism and fascism), the reality is the speech, while mostly inconsequential to date given admittedly little tangible policy follow-on, at least accomplished signaling an olive branch was being proffered the Islamic world after the crude excesses of the prior Administration.
Yet, when it comes to Niall’s foreign policy musings, it is best to keep the biggest doozy for last. Ferguson writes (when criticizing the drone program, not mind you because of the highly worrisome so-called collateral damage, but evidently mostly because “the real crime is that the assassination program destroys potentially crucial intelligence”: “(W)hat that means in practice is the abandonment not only of Iraq but soon of Afghanistan too. Understandably, the men and women who have served there wonder what exactly their sacrifice is for, if any notion that we are nation building has been quietly dumped. Only when both countries sink back into civil war will we realize the real price of Obama’s foreign policy.” Oh, I see: a crude trotting out of the stabbed in the back myth, this time of the good rulers sitting in Baghdad and Kabul, whom of course are only wishing that we’d keep 100,000-200,000 plus troops in each theater for another decade or two, per Niall’s risibly unmoored fantasy. This is particularly so as here we are dealing with a supposed Ryan fan and austerity adherent! Is Niall aware of our almost $800 billion military budget, and the material sub-components of said sum represented by these increasingly quixotic foreign adventures borne of over-reactions to 9/11 (understandable at the time, but have we learned nothing)? No matter, of course, as the security situation in each country deteriorates moving forward, it will be Obama’s fault, not that we should have never engaged in such unabashed nation-building adventurism in the first place.
Sad too, and worthy of at least a mention given Ferguson’s prominence on Harvard’s faculty, is that in his castigation of Obama’s drone campaign and the like, nary a mention is made of the Bush torture policy that Obama—if not as effectively as I’d have liked, moved to course correct away from--except evidently, to rue the current dearth of intelligence-gathering opportunities (read: resuscitating so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques", known in plain English as torture). After all, it’s one thing to have flubbed closing Guantanamo as did Obama, it’s another to cheer-lead doubling it as Romney did as a candidate in 2008, to quote: “You said the person is going to be in Guantanamo. I'm glad they're at Guantanamo. I don't want them on our soil. I want them in Guantanamo where they don't get the access to lawyers they get when they're on our soil. I don't want them in our prisons. I want them there. Some people have said we ought to close Guantanamo. My view is, we ought to double Guantanamo." Impressive Niall, that you’ve thrown in your lot with a phony panderer who would throw such red meat to a party yelling for the brown-skins to be denied the rights of habeas corpus enshrined in the Magna Carta almost a millennia ago. Good show, mate. Who gives a damn about Enlightenment values and the abolition of torture being on par with abolishment of slavery in its importance to any civilized nation?
Incidentally, it is amusing to read in Ferguson’s piece this spot of befuddlement: “(R)emarkably the president polls relatively strongly on national security”. It wouldn’t be so remarkable if Ferguson snapped out of his empire-nostalgia reverie and intuited the American people are tired, profoundly tired, of these absurd military adventures overseas. Also, of course, there is one word which doesn’t appear in Niall’s long Newsweek hack-fest, and that is Osama bin Laden (I might note in passing as I’m writing this on 9/11/12, Obama’s directives as Commander-in-Chief allow this New Yorker to commemorate the first anniversary of this tragedy with bin Laden actually dead).
Ferguson’s embarrassing piece ends with a barely concealed man-crush on Paul Ryan (the aforementioned bromance) where he gushes: “I first met Paul Ryan in April 2010. I had been invited to a dinner in Washington where the U.S. fiscal crisis was going to be the topic of discussion… Ryan blew me away. I have wanted to see him in the White House ever since.” Let's keep such breathless enthusiam a tad tempered, no? As the sentient conservative (whom these days can perhaps be counted on a hand or two) David Stockman put it in a must-read piece, one that cuts through the miasma of bullshit and spin with crushing efficacy with respect to Ryan, and much else besides:
Paul D. Ryan is the most articulate and intellectually imposing Republican of the moment, but that doesn’t alter the fact that this earnest congressman from Wisconsin is preaching the same empty conservative sermon. Thirty years of Republican apostasy — a once grand party’s embrace of the welfare state, the warfare state and the Wall Street-coddling bailout state — have crippled the engines of capitalism and buried us in debt. Mr. Ryan’s sonorous campaign rhetoric about shrinking Big Government and giving tax cuts to “job creators” (read: the top 2 percent) will do nothing to reverse the nation’s economic decline and arrest its fiscal collapse…
Spot on, to the word. And here’s the bottom line. Beyond the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of attack ads that will carpet bomb the swing states over the next fifty or so days, the broad middle of the polity smells that no real leadership or even truly persuasive alternative fiscal direction is on tap with the Republicans. Barring externalities like massive Euro-zone contagion, a material Middle East conflagration, or serious bungles during the debates by the President, I believe Obama is going to win this thing, even if it will be very close, to be sure. But Niall’s “choice between les Etats Unis and the Republic of the Battle Hymn” is a mockery. Are their disappointments with Obama? You betcha. Lofty rhetoric was too rarely complemented by real execution. The jobs crisis required more hands-on spade-work and sense of urgency by the White House. Yes, the Afghanistan “seminar” was protracted, and the sausage-making emitted at the end cynical (a misguided surge only to tee up a withdrawal?). And Wall Street deserved tougher treatment than it got, even if many of the extraordinary Government actions initiated during the Bush 43 Administration were arguably necessitated given the gravity of a looming depression on the near horizon. But, and be that as it may, Obama, contra Ferguson’s juvenilia, is not “psych[ed]…out” by Ryan, whatever that means. Was their a frisson or two of excitement with Romney’s pick, rather than a deathly dull Portman or Pawlenty? Sure. Ryan, with the benefit of a decade or so more years, and rather a lot more gravitas, on the top of a ticket? Just maybe. But Ryan psyching Obama out today under a flip-flopping, politically-challenged Romney as the GOP’s standard-bearer? No way (the only candidate whom might have troubled Obama a bit, assuming he had more resonance with voters, would have been Jon Huntsman).
Of course, I may be proven wrong. We'll know soon enough. Meantime, Ferguson, apparently unchastened, is just getting warmed up. Recently I espied him on Bloomberg TV suggesting he’d never seen more hot air than at the Democratic Convention (perhaps he's depressed by the healthy post-Convention bounce the Democrats got, in contrast to the rather underwhelming spectacle that was Tampa). As Bill Clinton might say, Niall’s got a lot of “brass” to so contend, given the amount of hot air and spittle shoveled through Newsweek's pages with this embarrassing effort. I'm afraid I will not be reading him with much respect moving forward after this nakedly partisan screed, and I suspect I am not alone.
May 26, 2012
Gaddis' Kennan Biography: Preliminary Musings
I have been meaning to discuss John Lewis Gaddis' biography of George Kennan here (George F. Kennan: An American Life), but as often have been unable to find the time. In the meantime, however, I wanted to highlight what I thought was the most judicious review I've seen to date (by Frank Costigliola, an academic who also edits Kennan's diaries). Costigliola's review appeared in the NYRB towards the end of 2011. While Gaddis' work has almost universally been praised as "magisterial" in its treatment of Kennan's life (make no mistake, it is an impressive biography, which rightfully earned Gaddis a Pulitzer) I do tend to agree with Costigliola that in parts his depiction of Kennan is "ultimately clipped and flattened." Touching on this, Costigliola writes:
The older man once described to Gaddis his habit, going back to childhood, of picking up on seemingly disassociated sights, sounds, and other stimuli and then bringing them together with other elements in his experience to fashion a concept or a connection uniquely his own. Throughout his life he had “read all sorts of mystery and beauty and other things into landscapes and places, and also into music.” He sensed what most other people could not. “Every city that I went to had not only a different atmosphere but a different sort of music and intonation to it…. I was immensely sensitive and responsive to differences in the atmosphere of places.”
I hope and plan to give Gaddis' biography a fuller analysis here at some point in the coming months, but simply wished to post sooner that I am sympathetic to Costigliola's concern as per the above.
On a related (if somewhat tangential) note, recently reading Kennan's Sketches From a Life (a compilation of various of his diary entries) I found this depiction of a large Communist demonstration he ran into walking around Hamburg during his first full-time foreign service posting in 1927 noteworthy. Kennan writes:
Yesterday was a rainy Sunday. I walked down to the post-office in the morning and ran into a huge Communist demonstration--thousands and thousands of people standing in the drizzling rain before the Dammtor Station, with their red flags and arm-bands, listening to soap-box orators, singing the Internationale, marching around behind sickly fife and drum organizations, buying propaganda literature and Sacco-Vanzetti post-cards.
While this snippet arguably explains why a Joe Alsop would describe George Kennan as "an almost too-sensitive man", it nonetheless neatly encapsulated for me similar musings having witnessed, for instance, various Occupy Wall Street gatherings. After all, at a time where unemployment levels among youth in major European countries like Spain are in the vicinity of 50%, austerity risks radicalizing a new lost generation, where geopolitical risk looms large through the Middle East, and where in the United States populist fires may re-ignite more forcefully given still highly significant economic head-winds amidst an uneven, quasi-recovery, that we are still being subjected to dreary moans from acolytes of systemically dangerous too big to fail/bail/manage etc. bulge brackets about Basel III, the Volcker Rule, and Dodd-Frank--this in the midst of such aforementioned major historic forces at play and old demons possibly being unleashed--well, it is indeed tempting to cherish some form of idealism given such a steady cacaphony of corporatized idiocy.
March 14, 2012
The Folly of Afghanistan
It has been rather an eventful week in Afghanistan. The senseless massacre of villagers perpetrated by a U.S. serviceman. The security incident that occurred near Leon Panetta's plane. The skittish spectacle of having U.S. troops disarm before hearing their own Defense Secretary speak. All this on the heels of the Koran-burning debacle, among many other such troublesome episodes. The confluence of these events is richly symbolic, if we needed any reminding, of an increasingly futile and failed war effort (I say futile as why have 100,000 men in theater to engage in a fantastically unrealistic nation-building effort amidst a Pashtun population who largely detest our presence, simply to ferret out perhaps 50-100 residual al-Qaeda operatives, and with their leader already felled long ago in Abbottabad?).
Meantime, our 'exit strategy' is to negotiate with those we initially pledged to decimate (that is, if they accept our entreaties to do so). To provide 'Government in a Box' to desperately backwards hamlets (many of whose inhabitants have never even heard of 9/11 and have little to no understanding why the U.S. is there). To train and equip an Afghan Army to supposedly restore order to precincts where, more often than not, said Army would risk being largely distrusted, loathed even. To play COIN (another tiresome Washington cottage industry where one regales about the Brits in Old Malaya), while the sitting Government in Kabul wants us to retrench from close-in villages to remote, larger bases. To sing the praises of 'hearts and minds', while gunning down young girls and burning Korans (we will likely see more such episodes given the epidemic of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as this piece helps elucidate, and given the repeated churning of troops chattel-like for serial tours). To speak unconvincingly of better aligning interests with Pakistan when Islamabad views Afghanistan--as it perenially has--as a vital, 'rear theater' in its power struggle with India, so that it will to varying degrees always allow for sanctuaries for Taliban and/or related interests. All this while we bankroll a massively corrupted client in a country mired in nepotism, narcotics and virtually never-ending conflict well before we arrived on the scene, and with approximately 2,000 U.S. soldiers dead, thousands more injured, $500 billion squandered, not to speak of allied losses and the devastasting Afghan toll.
As George Will noted a while back, at the time of the McChrystal going-ons:
It is difficult, and perhaps unwise, to suppress this thought: McChrystal's disrespectful flippancies, and the chorus of equally disdainful comments from the unpleasant subordinates he has chosen to have around him, emanate from the toxic conditions that result when the military's can-do culture collides with a cannot-be-done assignment. In this toxicity, Afghanistan is Vietnam redux [emphasis added].
Visting this year's Armory Show on a recent weekend here in New York, I stumbled on the below embedded photograph (taken in Afghanistan by the talented photographer Tim Hetherington, who subsequently died in Libya during a mortar attack in Misrata). The photograph apparently captures more the aftermath of a 'birthday hazing', as this site explains, rather than depicting the direct result of combat trauma or such. Yet it still powerfully evokes the lunacy of this conflict.
With Osama bin Laden dead, it is high time to declare victory and come home. Anthony Cordesman has recently written that we could accomplish this by an "exit by denial", an "honest exit", or what he describes as the biggest challenge, a "real transition plan", that could last until 2020. A 20 year war! Mr. Cordesman follows these matters far more closely than me, and I well respect his opinions, but I sense deep down he doesn't believe such a plan truly realizable. This seems to suggest the more honorable, realistic option is the so-called 'honest exit', I would argue. As Cordesman describes it:
We deal with the human consequences of these actions and ensure that those Afghans who worked with us are safe. We provide at least enough money and support so that, if there is a chance that the Afghan government and forces can survive with a far lower level of resources, they have at least that much support. We try to work with Pakistan, China, Russia, the Central Asian states, and even Iran to do as much as possible to limit the role of the Taliban and other insurgents, protect the non-Pashtun areas in the north and the large numbers of urban and other northern Pashtuns, and give Kabul a meaningful role. These efforts may well fail, but they at least offer the Afghans some chance.
After ten plus long years, it is clear that is about the best we are going to achieve, so let us get on with it. A smidgen of honest self-reckoning demands it, if only we can manage to cease deluding ourselves. But to admit we have been essentially dishonest about Afghanistan these many years given the near zero prospects of success--whether as result of the accumulated, mammoth delusions or the steady aggregation of more deliberate lies--would appear too exuberant an act of unvarnished honesty than we have seemed capable of late. Nor does a policy-making apparatus ridden by stop-gap measures, self-delusion, cynical detachment, or worse, help. Alas, we are instead likely to trundle along for a couple more years (and this only if Obama is re-elected, as the Republican alternatives are even worse), as more innocent lives are shattered, more billions squandered, all the while as our elites mostly disinterestingly shrug, and the mass public similarly issues a collective yawn. Perhaps this is the kind of society Teddy Roosevelt had in mind when he said: "Of all forms of tyranny the least attractive and the most vulgar is the tyranny of mere wealth, the tyranny of a plutocracy." After all, policy choices this stupendously poor, with so little care for the collosal carnage, epic waste, lives torn asunder, strategic incoherence and fundamental futility of the mission--all the while as the war drums keep bleating on beckoning towards new theaters, and amidst a backdrop of abhorrent indifference by far too many of us--collectively reveal a society scandalously flawed.
UPDATE: Related to above, this article is well worth reading too.
February 26, 2012
The Syria Conundrum
Almost a year ago in this space, I wrote regarding the unfolding situation in Syria:
It is impossible to predict with certainty, but I cannot see a turning back now or restoration of calm. The genie of increasingly insistent protests seems out of the bottle, and one now wonders whether Bashar is ultimately willing to kill, not scores, but thousands, in a desperate gambit to cow his populace, a terrible eventuality that will only lead to the regime's ultimate demise regardless…given promises of reform…are proving instead horrifying rivulets of blood on the streets of myriad cities, towns and villages through Syria, it seems highly likely protests will gain in size, breadth and insistency, shortly spreading to the downtowns of Aleppo and Damascus.
Fast forward a year and we see the apple does not fall far from the tree, when it comes to the Assad family. While subduing the insurrection to date has not been conducted with quite the same singular, brutish decisiveness his father (or, more particularly, his uncle Rifaat al-Assad) had manifested in the full-bore, scorched earth campaign that was 1982 Hama, the incremental escalation and toll is ratcheting up mercilessly to equal these historical horrors on an aggregated basis. In particular, the increasingly incessant shelling of districts like Babr Amr in Homs (not to mention the deprivations visited on forlorn towns like Idlib and Dara’a)—with zero regard for the many scores of civilians felled weekly—showcases tactics in equal measure cowardly and repulsive in the extreme.
The stench of death rising daily from Homs is an indelible black mark on Bashar, and were there even a smidgen of legitimacy left the regime could pretend to enjoy, this increasingly crude campaign has extinguished any semblance of same. One must add to this gory list documented use of torture (including against children), use of fragmentation mortar devices without warning, mass executions, among other horrific fare documented in a recent U.N. report. Indeed, it is manifestly clear that despite rosy optics around his ophthalmologist background, his attractive British-born JP Morgan alumnus wife, and such Knightsbridge style trappings—the man has now been nakedly revealed to be nothing more than a mass-murdering thug--happy to visit such horrors on his own people, no less--in a manner which already warrants war crime charges. Given these grim realities, we are facing an onslaught of elite opinion that ‘something must be done’ to remedy the increasingly intolerable situation. This past Friday, we had three opinion pieces splashed prominently across each of the New York Times (Anne-Marie Slaughter), Wall Street Journal (Fouad Ajami) and the Financial Times (Emile Nakhleh). Unsurprisingly, the best of the lot is Nakhleh’s (the FT consistently has a far higher caliber of opinion writing than either of its two other main competitors), but I want to touch on each in turn.
Anne-Marie Slaughter’s effort, I’m afraid, was the sloppiest, almost offering up something of a parody respecting the over-reaching ‘liberal hawk’ wing’s more excited exertions. Perhaps emboldened by the relative ‘ease’ of the Libyan campaign (see her indecently hasty post-Libya ‘victory lap’ in the FT last August, indecent given post-Gaddafi Libya’s many ongoing travails, some of them sketched out here), Slaughter offers up a chaotically concocted brew of ‘kitchen sink’ policy recommendations. These generally military policy prescriptions (worth noting, Slaughter is not a military expert) most prominently include the creation of “no-kill zones” (near the Turkish, Lebanese and Jordanian borders, no mention of the Iraqi or Israeli ones, unsurprisingly), said zones to be managed by ‘already active civilian committees’, but requiring countries “like Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Jordan” to arm opposition soldiers with “anti-tank, counter-sniper and portable antiaircraft weapons”. Slaughter then adds special forces to the mix, to be inserted from Qatar, Turkey and “possibly Britain and France” (Slaughter, I suspect speculating about Turkey, writes: “some may be there already”, regardless, the countries listed will doubtless be gratified by her volunteering their services). We are advised these special forces will allow opposition troops “to cordon off population centers and rid them of snipers."
Said Special Forces now hard at work in the alleyways of Aleppo and the Damascene suburbs, Homs and Hama, or the 'no kill zone' committees now perched on the Jordanian, Lebanese and Turkish frontiers (never mind King Abdullah, regardless of whether he inherited any of the ‘pluck’ of father, would likely not agree to this action—given how lucky he has been to date to avoid an uprising in his own back-yard--he may well have other priorities just now; as for Lebanon, you can imagine how a ‘no-kill zone’ there could instead rapidly transform into another “kill zone” instead, alas), the “no-kill zones” would then expand, almost as if by osmosis-like magic (recall for Slaughter these zones are meant to have as “absolute priority” simply “public safety and humanitarian aid”, not serve as spear-head for offensive moves). All this would simply require “intelligence focused on tank and aircraft movements, the placement of artillery batteries and communications lines among Syrian forces”. In turn this will, per her telling, allow for the weakening of pro-government forces so they agree truces on a regional, and then national basis.
In case anything should get out of hand (say revanchist killings by Sunnis of Alawi, to take an obvious example) Slaughter casually avers: “revenge attacks will not be tolerated” (by whom, the Gulf States that would ostensibly be bank-rolling the effort? Cameron and Sarkozy? The Turks? Others? And how would this punitive, behavioral ‘claw-back’ type mechanism get enforced?). With all due respect, might she have a better peek at Libya since her triumphant FT piece of last summer where the ‘hard-hearted’ realists were remonstrated, not only for their callousness, but also their piddling policy chops and lack of requisite intestinal fortitude? And if all the above weren’t enough, Slaughter treats us too to rather racy talk of “remotely piloted helicopters” (for delivery of “either” cargo or weapons, and for good measure, “to attack Syrian air defenses”). Little discussed is the sophistication of Syrian air defenses, which the Russians (and Soviets before them) have assisted Damascus with for decades now. There is also talk of the ‘leasing’ of drones (something akin to Hertz meets Northrop?), just in case the one’s Ankara already has on tap aren’t quite enough for the task at hand (Ms. Slaughter should be reminded Turkey's current drone capabilities are middling at best).
I provide all this color not to gratuitously take pot-shots at Ms. Slaughter, who is doubtless a competent, well regarded policy practitioner. But she simply cannot have it both ways. She introduces her op-ed saying “simply arming the opposition, in many ways the easiest option, would bring about exactly the scenario the world would fear most: a proxy war that would spill into Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan and fracture Syria along sectarian lines… [and] could allow Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups to gain a foothold in Syria and perhaps gain access to chemical and biological weapons.” Does Ms. Slaughter genuinely believe that her veritable cornucopia of military recommendations, ‘no kill zones’ on at least three borders of the Syrian Arab Republic, Special Forces inserted, drone strikes, helicopter sorties, and all the rest of it, somehow provides a more coherent road-map to a peaceful post-Assad Syria characterized by multi-sectarian harmony and stability than, say, a more conventional ‘train and equip’ effort? Or is it all a rather elaborate attempt to package up something that superficially sounds credible and doesn't involve dreadful sounding things like 'boots on the ground' (at least ours)? After all, were one to strip out all the noise, and besides the laudable humanitarian goals behind the no-kill zones (though good luck to an inhabitant of say, Babr Amr, getting there, more immediately let’s be focused on ensuring the ICRC can access the most beleaguered areas, no?), these zones per Slaughter’s plan are really meant in the main to allow for the very thing she warns could allow for unpleasant policy outcomes, that is, they are focused on allowing for the arming of the opposition to help expand the territorial remit of the ‘no kill’ zones. So let us at least be clear that essentially we would be embarking on an armed conflict with Syria, with the buck needing to stop somewhere beyond Doha if matters started heading south.
Mr. Ajami’s WSJ op-ed, meantime, reads like the typically lyrical musings he regularly dishes out to the (I suspect far too credulous) readership of the Wall Street Journal. And in case this tidy Journal venue isn’t enough, Ajami has a regular seat around Anderson Cooper’s table, where in sagacious tones he plays wizened dispenser of prophetic apercus (too often dutifully lapped up by the anchor), which have a common theme: Obama is a weak declinist, presiding over America’s Great Abdication, the Arab Street more than anything else is befuddled by Obama’s manifold weakness (“[in] a battered Syria, a desperate people await America’s help and puzzle of its leader’s passivity”), instead we should man up and charge the ramparts (though not sending the Marines via frigates into the Alawite heartlands of Latakia, Ajami reassures), rather than “frighten ourselves with phantoms of our own making.” Along the way Ajami treats us to misleading bromides about how it is Assad who has created the possible Islamist radicals in his mix (dispatching them to Iraq to fight the American Crusaders with a “promise of pardon”, we are told, with little to no evidence to speak of), essentially suggesting were radicalized Sunnis to get a tad rowdy amidst an escalating Syrian civil war, Assad would simply be getting his just desserts via such merited blow-back. After all this titillating foreplay, and with the anti-Barack aspersions having gotten the Journal’s editors in animated tizzy, when it comes to concrete policy recommendations, Ajami volunteers relatively thin gruel: take advantage of a demoralized Syrian Army via training, weapons, and “safe havens”, while recognizing the Syrian National Council as Syria’s rightful leaders (little discussed are the schisms within the SNC and how they do not necessarily represent all minority groups within Syria, not to mention other factors to include suspicions by various domestic players of nefarious intent by outsiders attempting to wield influence with the SNC, depending, Turkish, Saudi, and/or Western influences, among others). While portions of these recommendations, as I will touch on below, are not all wholly objectionable, they are certainly no panacea, or even close.
It is Emile Nakhleh’s op-ed however which is the most persuasive, not only because he dispenses with Ajami’s Obama as Appeaser claptrap, or Slaughter’s Qatari forces parachuting into Homs, but also more because he makes a very fundamental point which I have agreed with since at least last April. The pillar of his argument is that this regime is doomed, already resigned to the dust-bin of history. The longer the denouement, the bloodier it will prove. So why not act now? To be frank, I agree, but with many reservations. These include:
1) Unlike with Libya, the opposition do not yet control territorially contiguous areas of operations, making any effort to assist them far more complicated;
2) Syria’s strategic location in the Levant involves far more complex regional dynamics (again, as contrasted with Libya), implicating at minimum its immediate neighbors of Lebanon, Turkey (particularly with respect to Kurdish areas of Syria emboldened amidst the chaos to pursue irredentist claims), Iraq, Israel and, lest we forget, Jordan (heretofore a reasonably stable, reliable ally amidst the Arab Spring despite widespread dissatisfaction among its Palestinian majority with the Hashemite throne);
3) The relationship between Syrian opposition outside the country and inside is still tenuous and patchy, at best, so that attempts to recognize the Syrian National Council do not guarantee a positive, ‘bankable’ spill-over impact in-country given this still evident lack of cohesion;
4) Related to “3”, even the external opposition itself is far more divided than Libya’s was (at least at the conception of the Libyan uprising), largely a function of Syria’s more complex ethnic and sectarian make-up, and the same issues with lack of cohesiveness applies to the so-called Free Syrian Army within Syria (they are more simply a series of localized militias, if the local opposition itself generally has a more unified agenda, namely, for Bashar to be ejected from power, but then what, regarding preservation of consistent goals?);
5) Assad’s Army is larger than Gaddafi’s, and he will unfortunately also likely retain more loyalist units until the bitter end;
6) Assad enjoys large stock-piles of perilous chemical weaponry, we can suspect if his own skin is on the line in an existential end-game he may well employ same (once a war criminal it is a slippery slope of cascading horrors, and he has already well proved his despicableness), and/or there are risk presented by whom may gain control of these stock-piles were the regime to chaotically implode;
7) The prospects of revanchist violence and horrors are at least equal to Libya, but given the crazy quilt-work of villages, town and cities where such internecine horrors would unfold, could prove far bloodier;
8) The possibility that Lebanon were pulled into the mire of a full-bore Syrian civil war is very high, and the prospects of border instability will also greatly concern Amman and Tel Aviv (there are also Iraqi issues that would concern, not only Iran, but also elements of the Shi’a leadership in Baghdad);
9) The Russians have proven so dismal in their naked-self interest (historic client state relationship, arms contracts, the naval base in Tartous, etc) that one would have to be concerned about possible retaliatory machinations in the broader neighborhood if they over-step to defend their client; and
10) Turkey’s role cannot be seen as simply that of a Good Samaritan, while they are arguably the key player in the entire equation (of which more below) they will have critical interests regarding Kurdish minorities among other priorities that may not wholly gel with those of Washington, or those of the (rather juvenilely named conclave) ‘Friends of Syria’.
There could easily be another ten reasons besides (notably the unclear mandate emerging from the recent, inaugural Friends of Syria meeting and various divisions thereto, as well as more details around the Free Syrian Army’s highly inchoate bearing touched on above) but this list provides at least some of the main cautionary factors to keep in mind as we attempt to address this extremely complicated and combustible situation.
Ultimately, however, I believe the Assad regime has crossed various red-lines and the international community must become more proactive in its approach. To me, in the main, this largely rests with the Turks. I say this as I don’t believe ‘safe havens’ can credibly be erected on either the Lebanese or Jordanian borders (putting aside Iraq’s), for reasons alluded to above, at least not as of today. This leaves Turkey, and Nakhleh is right to point to the example of northern Iraq in 1991. The Arab League must work closely with Ankara to assure that Turkey would be willing to maintain and supply the zone (funded by the Arab League, particularly the Gulf States), and as Nakhleh says, if Syrian forces cross a further red-line and “violate the sanctuary” (assuming it were credible to create one after discussion with Turks), select members-states of the Friends of Syria could then move to arm the opposition (depending on Assad’s posture and actions as these pressures mount, timing and scope of the arming of opposition forces could be re-appraised on an ongoing basis). The Turks may be resigned to needing such a buffer zone regardless given internally displaced and refugee flows increasing in the coming weeks and months. The internationalization of the conflict in this more limited fashion could actually prove more realistic while at the same time ramping up the pressure on Assad. Importantly, there would also need to be reasonably concrete, pre-agreed protocols in place to restore full-fledged sovereignty over the entirety of Syria's territory at a later point, perhaps guaranteed by a concert of powers in collaborative manner with Ankara.
Meantime, and putting aside China and Iran (the former I believe will conclude they may have over-stepped with the UNSC veto so downplay next moves, the latter are more constrained given no direct border with Syria and major issues at home given the ever brewing nuclear imbroglio), Obama must better work with Putin to persuade him that his client in Damascus is doomed, and that the Arab League (and/or Friends of Syria) and Ankara’s move to establish a ‘safe haven’ in the north is but another death knell in his coffin. Russia should be given assurances around its naval base in a post-Assad Syria, and other inducements, with the aim of Moscow goading Assad to relinquish his seat of power on a more expedited basis (perhaps in return for safe passage out of Syria, though the growing war crimes dossier should optimally not allow for same). This Russia reach-out is not meant to necessarily constitute an attempt to resuscitate a UNSC mandate, though we should not necessarily give up on same, but the above actions would likely instead need to be taken under the aegis of the Arab League, Friends of Syria, or under duress (and sub-optimally) a smaller grouping of Gulf States, alongside Turkey too, and with some ‘blessing’ from interested Western powers. Meantime, we can fully expect Assad--esyping both the risk of greater international pressure, but also deep divisions on the specifics around precise approaches--attempting to stave off the specter of more concerted international efforts via largely meaningless gestures like intermittent ICRC access, reducing the intensity/pace of shelling, or the latest sham ‘referendum’ on constitutional reforms underway as I write this, and other such fare. Yet the regime has already crossed the rubicon, its true character revealed, and there is no going back, as we can be quite sure atrocities will continue moving forward.
Speaking of such atrocities, the name Ibrahim Qashoush may not be familiar to many readers, but this amateur poet found his voice during the uprising as this embedded YouTube attests.
Reportedly, in revenge, the regime not only killed him, but with sadistic savagery tore out his vocal chords and dumped his mutilated corpse in the Orontes River which flows through Hama’s ancient, and beautiful, water-wheels. This malice painfully showcases the character of this increasingly odious regime. The Arab Awakening is about many things, from disgust with endemic corruption, limited prospects characterized by chronic unemployment, and much more, but it is certainly also about revulsion at the grotesquely brazen totalitarian thuggery of episodes like these.
The U.S. has tried to navigate on a country-by-country basis its reaction to these inspiring, wide-spread uprisings, attempting to calibrate its approach to no one’s true satisfaction (including I suspect, the Administration’s, if they are being honest with themselves). But these are immensely complicated problems, none more than Syria. For instance, listen carefully to the YouTube embedded above, including the passing comments made about America in this spirited, revolutionary anthem. Recall too, after the hundreds of thousands of fatalities in Iraq (civilian and military), after the trillions spent there by the United States, all this blood and treasure expended, the Government in Baghdad is not even quite sure of its wherewithal security-wise to host an Arab League summit in late March. Let us show some humility and dispense with the farcical notion that Libya changed everything (particularly here given no NATO airpower is being contemplated), and recall the disaster that was Iraq, while keeping too a wary eye on the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.
Having better acknowledged this will not be easy, and that it is not that we fear only phantoms, like fretful cowards per Ajami’s caricature, but rather have very legitimate concerns. We cannot know the precise consequences that lie ahead in Syria, but if some combination of the Arab League, Friends of Syria and notably Turkey are willing to create and subsidize a territorial enclave in Syria’s north (optimally with UNSC support at a later date, even with some abstentions), this should be the beginning of better internationalizing the Syrian situation, elevating the status of the SNC and opposition forces, ratcheting up the pressure on the regime, and hopefully allowing for more defections amidst the majority Sunni conscript army on the heels of this greater international involvement. But let us cast a calibrated die with modest expectations, and with utmost sobriety. The situation in the Levant is littered with unknowns, unknowns that have not remotely been convincingly answered by the intonations that ‘something be done’. And yet, something must. This is the conundrum that Syria today presents the international community.
January 18, 2012
Brzezinski on Execution of the Asia "Pivot"
I push him further on Obama. Shortly before our lunch, the president returned from Australia where he announced plans to deploy 2,500 Marines there to shore up alliances in Asia. This is exactly the kind of move that baffles Brzezinski. What’s wrong, I ask, with Obama’s so-called pivot to Asia? Doesn’t it make sense to wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and shift attention to the rising east?
A good question. By the way, I have been very much wanting to post on the Republican primaries as well as an update on OWS (particularly Bloomberg's eviction action). I hope to have more soon.
About Belgravia Dispatch
Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.
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