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.

Posted by Gregory at 07:52 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

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.

Perhaps most surprising of all given the above backdrop have been the self-congratulatory plaudits among some in the pundit class which greeted Obama’s Syria speech of last night, as if something possibly momentous had been accomplished via the use of coercive diplomatic and military power. Beyond the bromides about norms and how ghastly CW usage, Obama’s speech was as empty a Presidential address as I can remember. The only newsworthy item might have been that he was dispatching his Secretary of State to Geneva to meet with his Russian counterpart, the very same one that had so nimbly outfoxed America’s ultimate policy objectives. That the main field of play was now pointing to Moscow, not Washington, spoke volumes.

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.

Follow Greg Djerejian on Twitter here

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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