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So Who Exactly Thought Syria Engagement Would Work?

As Michael Rubin pointed out Sunday, Syrian engagement has been a near-total failure. Damascus spent February 2010 responding to Obama’s outreach by openly mocking the White House’s efforts and threatening to saturation-bomb Israeli civilians, so the failure’s been predictable for at least a year.

So why did the White House continue to pursue engagement, up through recess-appointing Robert Ford as ambassador to Syria at the risk of souring executive-congressional relations? Hard to answer. What did Syria do in the meantime, while the administration continued to bumble through its naive policy? Here is a straightforward answer:

Commercial satellite photos have revealed a new Syrian nuclear enrichment facility near Damascus. There are two other facilities apparently related to nuclear research, but the Damascus site is apparently being equipped for enriching uranium for a reactor, or nuclear weapons. The grounds around this site are being paved, so that it’s more difficult to detect radioactive material… Syria originally had a nuclear reactor under construction at al Kibar, which was bombed by Israel in September, 2007.

Even this tactic was thoroughly predictable years ago, when Damascus responded to Israel’s bombing of al-Kibar by following the Iranian model and building multiple, redundant nuclear facilities. In other words, we’ve known about this exact plan since before Obama took office, yet the administration still pursued engagement. Now the Russians have gotten around to closing on their sale of anti-ship cruise missiles to Damascus, because if Obama can engage in his way, why can’t the Russians engage in their own way? Again, the clock keeps ticking as the White House keeps failing.

The critical question, as always, is not just about the decision but also about the decision-making process. What were the now-undeniably untenable assumptions that the White House used to game out the costs and benefits of engagement? Now that reality has pushed back forcefully, have those assumptions been abandoned? Were the assumptions originally brought to bear on decision-making as a matter of politics, or did some in the administration actually think they represented the most likely model for Middle East international relations? Have those people been fired?

Or more pointedly, who told Obama — mistakenly — that Syria could be peeled away from Iran? On what basis did they come to those conclusions? Are they still laboring under those delusions? I’m not saying that they shouldn’t be allowed to sketch assessments or pen policy prescriptions anymore. I just think they should have to write their assessments out in crayon, as a kind of very appropriate warning to the rest of us.


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