Perhaps U.S. policy toward Syria could be more incoherent and ineffectual, but it’s hard to see how. Yesterday Secretary of State John Kerry made what it is in essence the pro-intervention case. He said:
The longer the bloodshed goes on, the greater the prospect that the institutions of the state of Syria implode. And therefore the greater the danger is to the region and the world that chemical weapons fall into the hands of really bad actors. We do not want that to happen….
Right now, President Assad is receiving help from the Iranians, he is receiving help from al-Qaeda-related – some elements, he’s receiving help from Hizbollah, and obviously some help is coming in through the Russians. If he believes he can shoot it out, Syrians and the region have a problem, and the world has a problem.
That’s precisely what those of us who have been in favor of arming the moderate factions of the Syrian rebels—and perhaps supporting them with Western airpower—have been arguing for the past two years. Yet what conclusion does Kerry draw from his premise?
Political myths often persist not only in the face of revisionist history but also despite relying on a logically unsustainable contradiction to begin with. This is certainly the case with regard to the modern left’s exhortations for President Obama to run against the “do-nothing Republican Congress” in the model of Harry Truman, while also castigating Republicans for abandoning the halcyon era of bipartisanship and allowing politics to stop at the water’s edge, personified by Arthur Vandenberg. It is never quite explained how the Vandenberg-led congressional Republicans could give Truman massive assistance in essentially constructing the post-war American state—an accomplishment on which Truman heavily based his reelection campaign—while also being “do-nothing” and uncooperative to a fault.
Bloomberg’s Al Hunt is the latest to build his judgment of the current era on this shaky foundation. He laments in his latest column the fall of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by the Democrat Bob Menendez. Menendez is embroiled in a political scandal in which he is accused of corruption, and the allegations alone, Hunt says, will hurt the committee’s credibility and influence on the administration and the broader public. The Foreign Relations Committee, Hunt writes, has a storied history of shaping bipartisan American foreign policy and also providing oversight to keep the president in check. Hunt writes:
After Samuel Tadros blew the whistle on First Lady Michelle Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry’s plans to honor a vicious anti-Semite, Hitler-quoting, 9/11 celebrating, anti-American conspiracy theorist, the State Department backtracked and deferred the award, blaming the U.S. Embassy in Cairo for the poor vetting. Lee Smith has a useful summary of that issue, here. He writes:
It is unfair that the American embassy in Cairo is taking most of the blame for the [Samira] Ibrahim affair. Yes, they should’ve done a better job of vetting her before sending her name on to Washington. To get a read on Ibrahim’s political positions, all embassy staff had to do was check with some of Egypt’s genuine liberal activists, like those who since the story broke have criticized her vicious opinions, or like Samuel Tadros, or Mina Rezkalla and Amr Bargisi, or anyone from the Egyptian Union of Liberal Youth. But that hardly excuses management at Foggy Bottom, who should have smelled something fishy at the outset…
Yesterday, Samuel Tadros reported in the Weekly Standard that John Kerry was handling his transition to running the State Department about as adroitly as one would imagine. He had an idea, and Foggy Bottom sent out a press release excitedly announcing that First Lady Michelle Obama was going to enthusiastically partake in this idea. The State Department would confer Women of Courage awards on several worthy recipients. Unfortunately, one of them happened to have a bad habit, apparently, of proclaiming viciously anti-Semitic hate speech on Twitter and was pretty happy, according to her timeline, about the September 11 terror attacks. Tadros wrote:
On July 18 of last year, after five Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian bus driver were killed a suicide bombing attack, Ibrahim jubilantly tweeted: “An explosion on a bus carrying Israelis in Burgas airport in Bulgaria on the Black Sea. Today is a very sweet day with a lot of very sweet news.”
Ibrahim frequently uses Twitter to air her anti-Semitic views. Last August 4, commenting on demonstrations in Saudi Arabia, she described the ruling Al Saud family as “dirtier than the Jews.” Seventeen days later she tweeted in reference to Adolf Hitler: “I have discovered with the passage of days, that no act contrary to morality, no crime against society, takes place, except with the Jews having a hand in it. Hitler.”
Ibrahim holds other repellent views as well. As a mob was attacking the United States embassy in Cairo on the eleventh anniversary of 9/11, pulling down the American flag and raising the flag of Al Qaeda, Ibrahim wrote on twitter: “Today is the anniversary of 9/11. May every year come with America burning.” Possibly fearing the consequences of her tweet, she deleted it a couple of hours later, but not before a screen shot was saved by an Egyptian activist.
Just when you think that the situation in Syria couldn’t get any worse… it does. The conflict is spilling over Syria’s borders and badly affecting its neighbors.
The United Nations Refugee Agency is reporting that the number of Syrians who have registered as refugees (which allows them access to aid and services) has now passed the 1 million mark. The actual number of refugees, many of them unregistered, is higher and millions more are internally displaced within Syria. The refugee flow is growing all the time with at least 7,000 people leaving the country every day. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees warns that “Syria is spiraling towards full-scale disaster”–and it’s not just Syria that is affected. As the New York Times notes:
If President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry were still optimistic about the latest round of talks, the comments of Iranian Atomic Energy Organization head Fereydoun Abbasi should disabuse them of that notion.
Speaking on the sidelines of a conference in Isfahan, according to a news compilation circulated by U.S. diplomats in the region, Abbasi said that Iran would announce further “achievements” at the next round of talks, and that Iran would not accept any new restrictions:
Earlier this week, I wrote about the Syrian rebels’ threats to boycott a proposed meeting with new Secretary of State John Kerry, who had been far too friendly with Bashar al-Assad for their tastes and from whom they were not getting enough support. The tactic worked: Kerry has pledged the first direct American aid to armed rebel factions. It is humanitarian aid, not weapons; but as the New York Times notes, it may indirectly help provide them with weapons by freeing up rebel funds for other purposes.
It is a tactical shift for the Obama administration, which had found that American officials’ previous attempts to remove Assad from power by shaking their heads in disappointment at him were going nowhere. The aid is an important acknowledgement that a state run by Assad and a state run by his opponents aren’t the only two possible outcomes of the Syrian civil war. A third, and far from unlikely, result would have the state split along sectarian lines, in slow disintegration, with strategic safe havens carved out for powerful terrorist groups or rogue state proxies–Lebanon, in other words. The Times reports:
In January, as the Syrian civil war closed in on its second anniversary, news broke that was tantalizingly close to a game-changer. Josh Rogin reported that a State Department cable indicated the strong belief that Bashar al-Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons. The next day, Rogin reported a stern denial from the State Department. In the fog of war, the two claims seemed to have roughly equal credibility. But the Obama administration’s denial raised some eyebrows, since President Obama had declared the use of chemical weapons a clear red line that would necessitate intervention in the conflict. Was he moving the red line again, as he had appeared to do just months before, to avoid taking action?
The perception that President Obama was far too willing to find any excuse not to increase help to the Syrian rebels was especially unhelpful for the administration since the president had recently sent another dispiriting message to the Syrian opposition: the announcement of the nomination of John Kerry to be his next secretary of state. Kerry was, of course, one of the least perceptive American senators with regard to the cruelty of the man he called—as aides cringed—his “dear friend” Assad and bought hook, line and sinker the idea that the bloodthirsty tyrant might be ready to reform and moderate his behavior. So it’s not a complete surprise that, as Kerry seeks a meeting with them, the rebels are wondering whether they have any reason to let Kerry use them as props for a photo op to be almost certainly discarded thereafter. CBS News reports:
During a press appearance yesterday with the Jordanian foreign minister, a reporter told Secretary of State Kerry that “many people in the Arab world were disappointed” that President Obama made no mention of the “peace process” in his State of the Union address. The reporter asked if Kerry could “assure us that this Administration have this peace process as a priority.” Kerry responded that he’s an optimist, believes “there are possibilities,” but noted that:
“[T]he President is not prepared, at this point in time, to do more than to listen to the parties, which is why he has announced he’s going to go to Israel. It affords him an opportunity to listen. And I think we start out by listening and get a sense of what the current state of possibilities are and then begin to make some choices.”
It’s a better approach than the one Obama adopted in his first term, when he ignored experts who urged him to study the failures of President Clinton and President Bush before rushing right back into the process (as if all that was necessary was a new president). But even a “listening tour” ignores the lesson of the preceding peace processes, which was that the absence of peace was not the result of Israel’s failure to offer the Palestinians a state, or accept an American bridging proposal, or withdraw from territory, or dismantle settlements, or agree to a year-long final status negotiation with intensive American involvement, which resulted in yet another offer of a state. Israel did all those things and got no peace. The reason for the repeated failures of the “peace process” was something else.
An admiring portrait of now-former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the New York Times (is there any other kind of portrait of Clinton in the Times?) over the weekend is in some ways a follow-up to a comment let slip by Clinton’s successor, John Kerry, last week. Kerry told the Boston Globe that President Obama called and offered him the job a full week before Susan Rice dropped her embattled bid for the post and withdrew her name from consideration.
If that’s true–if Obama really always wanted the dour and pliable Kerry over the sharp, independent and tough Rice–the Times profile of Clinton helps explain why. Clinton, according to the Times, was too much of an interventionist for the Obama White House. This insight illuminates the Kerry selection: John Kerry can give you a thousand reasons not to do something. Kerry and Obama both believe it looks thoughtful to appear aloof, uninterested, bored. Clinton and Rice, on the other hand, are always in motion. Kerry will be quite the change of pace, if his statements during his confirmation hearings are any indication, as the Washington Times notes:
When then-State Senator Scott Brown decided to run for United States Senate from Massachusetts in 2010, he knew he would be a long shot. He also knew that if he won the seat, which he did, he would have to run another statewide election two years later to keep his seat. What he did not expect to have to do was run four statewide Senate elections in five years in order to serve in the Senate for a full term. And that is exactly what he would have had to do had he decided to run for John Kerry’s vacated Senate seat in Massachusetts.
Instead, Brown opted against throwing his hat in the ring, leaving local and national Republicans disappointed. But it’s easy to understand the decision. Not only would Brown have to win a special election this year, but the seat is up in 2014, which means he’d have to run another election next year. One Senate election is exhausting. Two in three years is even more so. The prospect of running four Senate elections in five years, three of them in a row, was nothing less than daunting. This would be the case for any election, but in Brown’s case he was up against the odds of winning as a Republican in deep-blue Massachusetts. He also had a fairly attractive fallback option: run for governor of Massachusetts in 2014.
Scott Shane’s New York Times account of the prosecution of former CIA operative John Kiriakou begins:
Looking back, John C. Kiriakou admits he should have known better. But when the F.B.I. called him a year ago and invited him to stop by and “help us with a case,” he did not hesitate. In his years as a C.I.A. operative, after all, Mr. Kiriakou had worked closely with F.B.I. agents overseas. Just months earlier, he had reported to the bureau a recruiting attempt by someone he believed to be an Asian spy. “Anything for the F.B.I.,” Mr. Kiriakou replied.
Hence, under the pretense of that counterterrorism episode, Kiriakou agreed to speak to the FBI without a lawyer present. What Shane does not describe, however, is the backstory, an episode that reflects on how newly-confirmed Secretary of State John Kerry has put his own personal ambition above national security.
Over the weekend, the MassInc Polling Group released the results of a poll on a hypothetical matchup for John Kerry’s soon-to-be-open Senate seat in Massachusetts. The poll contains some very good news for the possible Republican candidate, Scott Brown, but also offers a reminder of why his support and high approval numbers don’t by any means guarantee him true frontrunner status.
Brown learned that the hard way, of course, in November. He went into his election against liberal class warrior Elizabeth Warren with numbers any incumbent member of Congress, especially a senator, would feel good about. His approval rating was at 57 percent. He was viewed as bipartisan as well–essential to his success as a Republican in Massachusetts. That would normally insulate most senators in a general election (a primary would be another story). But Brown lost, and the good news/bad news disparity in this poll is a good summary of why:
Republicans don’t seem to be retreating from the battle over Chuck Hagel. Senator James Inhofe, the new ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has added his name to the list of Republicans opposing the defense secretary nominee. The question is, how far will the party be willing to go on this fight? There are other nominations it has an interest in fighting, including Jack Lew for treasury secretary, John Kerry for secretary of state, and John Brennan for CIA chief. In the end, it will only be able to choose a couple to focus on.
The point of battling Lew wouldn’t necessarily be to prevent his confirmation outright, because there is no indication that Obama would choose someone preferable. But threatening a fight could help bring attention to policy differences between the GOP and the White House, and hold Lew accountable for his slippery relationship with the truth.
As Alana mentioned, Chuck Hagel’s confirmation as secretary of defense may hinge not on policy or his qualifications, but something more important to the Senate club: how much the others senators like him. John Kerry, the president’s choice for secretary of state, will almost certainly breeze through his own confirmation hearings for the same reason. But the best contrast to the story about whether the cool kids will let Hagel eat lunch with them is Politico’s story on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s upcoming testimony on Benghazi.
In the wake of the attack, which left our ambassador and three others dead, I wrote that the fact that Clinton’s State Department denied requests for more security for our diplomatic team there made two things clear. First, that declining the security requests was irresponsible given the danger of the posting, and second, that the request itself was evidence that Clinton was negligent in the attention she was paying to the Benghazi team even though the folly of this approach was becoming more obvious by the day. A subsequent accountability review report came to the same conclusions, and painted a picture of a poorly administrated, chaotic, and inattentive State Department. So what is her appearance before a Senate panel expected to be like? From Politico:
As Jonathan noted earlier, there have been quite a few strange justifications for Chuck Hagel’s nomination to be secretary of defense. We are told that although Hagel only seems to speak of Israel through gritted teeth and with evident disdain, that is–according to the left–the new definition of what it means to be “pro-Israel.” We are also told he is a veteran and so he knows the horrors of war. But of course they can repeat this until they are blue in the face and it still won’t undo Hagel’s vote in favor of the Iraq war, and we all remember Barack Obama’s campaign putting out an ad ridiculing John McCain’s war injuries. So it’s unlikely that Hagel’s war heroics mean anything to the administration beyond their value in limiting criticism of Hagel.
One question critics of Hagel have asked repeatedly is why the Obama administration would nominate someone who claims to oppose the president’s own stated quest to stop Iran. Hagel is, according to the Washington Post, currently meeting with security officials to answer that question, explaining how ridiculous it is for them to have believed their lying eyes. From the Post:
How low can they go? After leaks suggesting that the White House is decreasing projected troop levels in Afghanistan post-2014 to as low as 3,000, now the deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes has suggested that the zero option is a very real possibility.
This might be just a bargaining ploy to put pressure on Hamid Karzai as negotiations over a Status of Forces Agreement heat up, but it could also be where the White House ends up. That was certainly the outcome in Iraq. There, as in Afghanistan, the view of most experts and military officers was that we needed a substantial residual force but after negotiations hit a snag, President Obama pulled all the troops out. He may well do so again in Afghanistan—an option that Chuck Hagel and John Kerry would be more likely to support than their predecessors at Defense and State.
All throughout the Syrian civil war, analysts and human rights groups were at pains to point out the rising death toll and falling share of media and public attention. But underlying the legitimate frustration was a perhaps forced belief–straining under the weight of reality–in the conventional wisdom: the house of Assad will fall; the victims’ deaths will not be in vain.
But the standard rule of conventional wisdom–that it may be the former but is rarely the latter–applies here as well. As Emile Hokayem writes in the wake of Bashar al-Assad’s recent defiant speech:
Presenting his nominee for secretary of defense yesterday, President Obama began with a self-congratulatory assessment of his own national security record, asserting he had protected American security “by ending the war in Iraq, and beginning a transition in Afghanistan.”
As Bret Stephens notes in the Wall Street Journal, it was President Bush whose surge in Iraq (against the advice of Senators Obama, Kerry and Hagel) ended that war, and whose status of forces agreement with Iraq could have led to a long-term U.S. security relationship, had President Obama not fumbled it. In Afghanistan, Obama approved a 3/4 surge, announcing it with a speech setting a time limit and asserting the country he really wanted to build was his own. He will “transition” next year without a victory. In that regard, it may be useful to recall President Bush’s December 1, 2008 interview with Charlie Gibson: