Commentary Magazine


Topic: Robert Ford

Syria: What Might Have Been

The Obama administration, like its predecessors, has used strategic leaks to the press to buttress arguments in which officials are (theoretically) hamstrung by secrecy laws. Usually the Obama administration has done so in order to look tougher than critics give the president credit for being, but in today’s New York Times they’ve taken the opposite tack: a leak designed to support the president’s instinctive caution on Syria. Unfortunately for Obama, the attempt to spin his Syria policy merely reveals just how little the president understands about military strategy and the Middle East.

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The Obama administration, like its predecessors, has used strategic leaks to the press to buttress arguments in which officials are (theoretically) hamstrung by secrecy laws. Usually the Obama administration has done so in order to look tougher than critics give the president credit for being, but in today’s New York Times they’ve taken the opposite tack: a leak designed to support the president’s instinctive caution on Syria. Unfortunately for Obama, the attempt to spin his Syria policy merely reveals just how little the president understands about military strategy and the Middle East.

The story in the Times recaps a classified report from the CIA to the president analyzing the success rate of arming rebels in past conflicts. The report, according to the story, greatly contributed to Obama’s reluctance to help the Syrian rebels. But there are two problems with this approach. The first, and obvious, one is that Obama has already given the green light to arming the rebels the administration considers sufficiently moderate. If the CIA report was the reason not to arm them sooner, what’s the reason to arm them now?

The answer to that appears to be: Obama wants to fight ISIS more seriously than he wanted to defeat Bashar al-Assad–though that still doesn’t account for the fact that the president believes it’s a policy with very low odds of succeeding. Indeed, the story itself eventually points out that Obama nonetheless chose the least effective method of helping the rebels:

The C.I.A. review, according to several former American officials familiar with its conclusions, found that the agency’s aid to insurgencies had generally failed in instances when no Americans worked on the ground with the foreign forces in the conflict zones, as is the administration’s plan for training Syrian rebels.

So this arguably raises as many questions as it answers. But the other aspect of this is about the dishonesty with which the administration seeks to push back on its critics, especially those who recently left the administration–Leon Panetta most prominently, but also Hillary Clinton, Michele Flournoy, and former Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford. The Times mentions Clinton, Panetta, and David Petraeus:

The debate over whether Mr. Obama acted too slowly to support the Syrian rebellion has been renewed after both former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta wrote in recent books that they had supported a plan presented in the summer of 2012 by David H. Petraeus, then the C.I.A. director, to arm and train small groups of rebels in Jordan.

But the tone and nature of this argument coming from the administration is just a repeat of a classic Obama tactic: setting up a straw man and then knocking him down. The administration wants to paint Syria intervention as simply a gunrunning operation, with some foreign training. But the idea that it was either CIA gunrunning or nothing is what the president, were he on the receiving end of this argument, would call a false choice. And it goes to the heart of why Obama’s foreign policy has been so unnerving: he doesn’t seem to really understand the issues at play.

Arming and training the Syrian rebels was indeed a key part of interventionists’ early argument. But it wasn’t the whole argument. A more comprehensive intervention that still stopped shy of an American ground war included territorial carve-outs to secure parts of the country in the hands of certain rebels; a no-fly zone (or more than one) to enforce the boundaries of the new carve-outs; large on-site training programs; and humanitarian corridors to those territories from neighboring friendly countries, like Jordan and perhaps Kurdish positions in Iraq and Turkey.

This would also allow intelligence from Israel to be better coordinated and utilized, at least for air support and the tracking of enemy forces, and would improve and streamline recruitment efforts. And it would protect segments of the disappearing borders of these countries, to make it more difficult (though far from impossible) for Islamist terrorist groups to take advantage of porous borders, especially between Iraq and Syria. It would also go some way toward protecting at-risk minorities from groups like ISIS, and it would force ISIS to either defend more territory (instead of almost always being on offense) or leave forces behind in territory through which it marches virtually unopposed to hold that territory, spreading its resources thinner and disrupting its communications and supply lines.

Obama seems to think that the fragmented nature of the Syrian rebels and the weakness of the Syrian state and the Iraqi army vindicate his reluctance to help the Syrian rebels. But the opposite is the case. There were better options available to the president than simply gunrunning in Syria. Had he taken those options, it’s likely the situation would be better today than it is. But that would require the president to first admit that those options even exist.

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Obama’s Syria Policy Rebuked From the Inside

Robert Ford is one of the outstanding Arabists of his generation—a diplomat who has capably represented American interests in Iraq, Algeria, Syria, and other countries. The New York Times had reported earlier this year that he was next in line to become ambassador to Egypt, yet on February 28 he announced he was stepping down as envoy to Syria and leaving the government.

He did not reveal at the time why he quit—but now he has. In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour he said:

Christiane, I was no longer in a position where I felt I could defend the American policy. We have been unable to address either the root causes of the conflict in terms of the fighting on the ground and the balance on the ground and we have a growing extremism threat.

And there really is nothing we can point to that’s been very successful in our policy except the removal of about 93 percent of some of Assad’s chemical materials. But now he’s using chlorine gas against his opponents in contravention of the Syrian government’s agreement in 2013 to abide by the chemical weapons convention. The regime simply has no credibility and our policy is not addressing the Syrian crisis as it needs to, frankly speaking.

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Robert Ford is one of the outstanding Arabists of his generation—a diplomat who has capably represented American interests in Iraq, Algeria, Syria, and other countries. The New York Times had reported earlier this year that he was next in line to become ambassador to Egypt, yet on February 28 he announced he was stepping down as envoy to Syria and leaving the government.

He did not reveal at the time why he quit—but now he has. In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour he said:

Christiane, I was no longer in a position where I felt I could defend the American policy. We have been unable to address either the root causes of the conflict in terms of the fighting on the ground and the balance on the ground and we have a growing extremism threat.

And there really is nothing we can point to that’s been very successful in our policy except the removal of about 93 percent of some of Assad’s chemical materials. But now he’s using chlorine gas against his opponents in contravention of the Syrian government’s agreement in 2013 to abide by the chemical weapons convention. The regime simply has no credibility and our policy is not addressing the Syrian crisis as it needs to, frankly speaking.

Coming from a soft-spoken diplomat such as Robert Ford, that’s a bombshell. Elsewhere in the interview he made plain that—like David Petraeus, Leon Panetta, Hillary Clinton, and other senior members of the administration—he favored providing more support to the non-jihadist opposition at the beginning of the conflict. He said:

Had there been more military assistance and logistical assistance—and even things like cash—two things would have happened differently. Number one, the opposition would have probably been able to gain more ground a couple of years ago more quickly and been able to go to a negotiating table in a much stronger position; the regime would have been much weaker.

And the second thing is—and this is really important, Christiane—the ability of al-Qaeda and Islamist extremist groups to recruit away from the moderates would have been less. And we would have less of an extremism problem in Syria now. Had there been more systems provided to the moderate forces even a year or two ago, it would have made a big difference.

Alas President Obama failed to follow his advisers’ policy on Syria and is still equivocating about what to do even as the situation goes from bad to worse. Ambassador Ford has delivered a much-needed rebuke from the inside to the president’s scandalous failure to address the worst human-rights and strategic disaster of the past decade. The only wonder is that more administration officials who have staked their careers on the cause of humanitarian intervention are not resigning in protest.

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Victory Is the Only Legitimacy Assad Needs

Consumers of news are well aware that the old saw “if it bleeds, it leads” comes with an unstated qualification: it depends who else is bleeding. This isn’t the only variable, but it’s a potent one. And so the current age of global instability–the Arab Spring, European protest movements, etc.–has meant that no matter how much Syria bleeds, it rarely leads. While the conflict has not experienced any major transformations recently, the lack of interest in Syria compared to, say, Egypt or Ukraine or the perennial newsmakers in Israel and the Palestinian territories means it’s possible, even likely, we’ll miss subtle shifts.

And Syria has undergone such a shift. The New York Times reports that Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, believes Bashar al-Assad will stay in power. This isn’t breaking news. But it’s a significant story because it’s not breaking news. We’ve written here over the last year or so that Assad’s survival has gone from unlikely to tenuous to probable, culminating in the Russian-brokered deal to pretend to eliminate all of Syria’s chemical weapons, a deal which (as the Times notes) did more to solidify Assad’s hold on power than virtually any other development there since the beginning of the uprising.

Assad’s survival, then, has become the new conventional wisdom, ushering Syria into an era of status quo chaos. The Times adds that this story appears in today’s print edition of the paper on page A10. Assad’s survival means Syria will continue to bleed, but won’t come close to leading.

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Consumers of news are well aware that the old saw “if it bleeds, it leads” comes with an unstated qualification: it depends who else is bleeding. This isn’t the only variable, but it’s a potent one. And so the current age of global instability–the Arab Spring, European protest movements, etc.–has meant that no matter how much Syria bleeds, it rarely leads. While the conflict has not experienced any major transformations recently, the lack of interest in Syria compared to, say, Egypt or Ukraine or the perennial newsmakers in Israel and the Palestinian territories means it’s possible, even likely, we’ll miss subtle shifts.

And Syria has undergone such a shift. The New York Times reports that Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, believes Bashar al-Assad will stay in power. This isn’t breaking news. But it’s a significant story because it’s not breaking news. We’ve written here over the last year or so that Assad’s survival has gone from unlikely to tenuous to probable, culminating in the Russian-brokered deal to pretend to eliminate all of Syria’s chemical weapons, a deal which (as the Times notes) did more to solidify Assad’s hold on power than virtually any other development there since the beginning of the uprising.

Assad’s survival, then, has become the new conventional wisdom, ushering Syria into an era of status quo chaos. The Times adds that this story appears in today’s print edition of the paper on page A10. Assad’s survival means Syria will continue to bleed, but won’t come close to leading.

The Times mentions that Ford’s “assessment was starkly different from one the Obama administration presented as recently as last year, when it insisted that Mr. Assad’s days were numbered and that he was losing a battle of attrition with the moderate opposition.” Syria was always a prime example of the president’s belief that he could make something so by simply saying it. Obama declared Assad’s days to be numbered; what else could possibly have been needed?

The Times asks Ford why Assad is now expected to stay in power–that is, why Assad might have won. Here’s his response:

Mr. Ford said there were three reasons Mr. Assad had been able to hang on to power. First, Mr. Ford said, the Syrian opposition had been unable to assure the Alawite minority that it would not be threatened by Mr. Assad’s overthrow. “First and foremost,” Mr. Ford said, the Syrian opposition “has been very unsuccessful at explaining an agenda that would not threaten the communities that are the pillars of support for the regime, first and foremost the Alawite community.” Mr. Assad himself is an Alawite.

Another factor that has helped Mr. Assad’s prospects has been “Iranian and Russian financing and huge amounts of arms coming from both Russia and Iran.” Tehran’s decision to encourage Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia, and Iraqi Shiite fighters to join the fray has also provided the Syrian government with badly needed manpower, Mr. Ford said.

The third factor is that the Assad government has had a “certain unity and coherence, which is lacking on the opposition side,” he said.

Mr. Ford appeared to hold out little hope that diplomacy could resolve the crisis anytime soon. He said the Syrian government was not interested in negotiating the establishment of a transitional administration that could govern the country if Mr. Assad yielded power. Nor, he added, has the United States had any serious negotiations over the Syria crisis with Tehran.

In other words, Assad had received significant help from his backers, while the Obama administration has neither given such help to Assad’s opposition nor seriously engaged in diplomacy with Assad’s benefactors. Of course, the window for significant material support to the rebels has probably closed, and been closed for some time. At the outset of the uprising, there seemed to be an opportunity to try and pick winners and losers among the rebel groups. The ever-contemplative Obama just had to think about it for a while, say, several years.

It’s not just Ford or U.S. intelligence officials who admit the odds in favor of Assad’s continued reign. Wherever there is a foreign-policy crisis, you are likely to find an insipid and dismissive quote from this nation’s chief diplomat, the blundering John Kerry. And Syria is no different. Here is Kerry’s acknowledgement of the current state of the conflict:

On Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to recognize Mr. Assad’s tenacity on the battlefield in remarks to a group of university students.

“Whether they win, don’t win, they can’t regain legitimacy,” said Mr. Kerry, who argued that the Syrian leader would face armed opposition as long as he sought to hold power.

The most charitable explanation is that Kerry simply doesn’t understand how offensive and callous his statements are to the many, many, many victims and their families of this incredibly bloody civil war. Is that their consolation prize from the leader of the free world? The Obama administration may not lift a finger to stem the barbarous mass murder they are subjected to, but rest assured the president has resolutely extracted from Assad his international legitimacy.

What the president and his embarrassing secretary of state don’t say is that such legitimacy may not be theirs to bestow anyway. Victors tend to accrue legitimacy in the real world. And Assad is on pace to claim a costly, but no less real, victory.

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Lebanon: Too Quiet?

As the situation goes from bad to worse in Lebanon, there are odd little signs. Chief among them are the comments made by Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal when he quit the Saudis’ mediation effort in Beirut on Wednesday. Saying the situation was dangerous, he told Al-Arabiya: “If the situation reaches full separation and (regional) partition, this means the end of Lebanon as a state that has this model of peaceful cohabitation between religions and ethnicities.”

These words have meaning. It’s arresting enough that the Saudis have pulled out; they have been particularly assiduous about diplomacy in Lebanon, overlaying repeated bromides about unity and cohabitation on their campaign to retain Sunni Arab influence there. Pulling out of the mediation effort with bridge-burning rhetoric is uncharacteristic of the Saudis to an even greater degree. Meanwhile, envoys from Turkey and Qatar also suspended their mediation efforts on Thursday, announcing that they needed to consult with their governments. All things being equal, these pullouts don’t make sense. The parties in question have a history of intensive prior engagement in Lebanon, particularly in the 2006 and 2008 crises. Nothing suggests they are suddenly content to leave Lebanon’s fate to Syria and Hezbollah.

But all things may not be equal. It’s quite possible that the regional nations are not losing their interest in Lebanon: they are losing their interest in the mediation process with the unity government. The Turks and the Sunni Arabs may not agree on all their strategic objectives, but they can see what is obvious: that the unity government of Lebanon has become, in key ways, a convenience for Hezbollah and Iran. Its perpetual weakness gives Hezbollah latitude, while at the same time making the commitment of other governments to it a net disadvantage for their long-term goals.

Nothing in Lebanon changes quickly. There is a prospect for a new unity government, with Druze leader Walid Jumblatt joining Hezbollah in backing perennial prime-minister-of-convenience Omar Karami. Karami’s stints as a figurehead have lasted only a few months each time, but the fiction of business as usual in Lebanon could persist for a while; it may even involve some passing interest in Nicolas Sarkozy’s proposal for a multi-party contact group.

The words of Saud al-Faisal, however, are the most striking feature of the current crisis. Set next to the news that the chief of the Lebanese armed forces has been in Syria this week, consulting directly with Bashar al-Assad on military cooperation, they have an ominous ring. Any alternative to the status quo in Lebanon will involve foreign arms taking on Hezbollah. With regional nations abandoning the mediation effort, and the Saudi statement implying that something other than the unity-government construct is in prospect, the commitment to the status quo is looking weak.

The U.S. government might still play a decisive role, but the conditions are not propitious. The timing of Ambassador Robert Ford’s arrival in Syria — this week — makes it more likely that the U.S. will simply be seen as endorsing a Syrian-backed deal to install Omar Karami as prime minister. That move — a convenience to buy time — would merely put the status quo on life support. With no U.S. plan to prevent Hezbollah and Iran from exploiting the status quo in Lebanon, the other nations of the region are planning for a future beyond it.

As the situation goes from bad to worse in Lebanon, there are odd little signs. Chief among them are the comments made by Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal when he quit the Saudis’ mediation effort in Beirut on Wednesday. Saying the situation was dangerous, he told Al-Arabiya: “If the situation reaches full separation and (regional) partition, this means the end of Lebanon as a state that has this model of peaceful cohabitation between religions and ethnicities.”

These words have meaning. It’s arresting enough that the Saudis have pulled out; they have been particularly assiduous about diplomacy in Lebanon, overlaying repeated bromides about unity and cohabitation on their campaign to retain Sunni Arab influence there. Pulling out of the mediation effort with bridge-burning rhetoric is uncharacteristic of the Saudis to an even greater degree. Meanwhile, envoys from Turkey and Qatar also suspended their mediation efforts on Thursday, announcing that they needed to consult with their governments. All things being equal, these pullouts don’t make sense. The parties in question have a history of intensive prior engagement in Lebanon, particularly in the 2006 and 2008 crises. Nothing suggests they are suddenly content to leave Lebanon’s fate to Syria and Hezbollah.

But all things may not be equal. It’s quite possible that the regional nations are not losing their interest in Lebanon: they are losing their interest in the mediation process with the unity government. The Turks and the Sunni Arabs may not agree on all their strategic objectives, but they can see what is obvious: that the unity government of Lebanon has become, in key ways, a convenience for Hezbollah and Iran. Its perpetual weakness gives Hezbollah latitude, while at the same time making the commitment of other governments to it a net disadvantage for their long-term goals.

Nothing in Lebanon changes quickly. There is a prospect for a new unity government, with Druze leader Walid Jumblatt joining Hezbollah in backing perennial prime-minister-of-convenience Omar Karami. Karami’s stints as a figurehead have lasted only a few months each time, but the fiction of business as usual in Lebanon could persist for a while; it may even involve some passing interest in Nicolas Sarkozy’s proposal for a multi-party contact group.

The words of Saud al-Faisal, however, are the most striking feature of the current crisis. Set next to the news that the chief of the Lebanese armed forces has been in Syria this week, consulting directly with Bashar al-Assad on military cooperation, they have an ominous ring. Any alternative to the status quo in Lebanon will involve foreign arms taking on Hezbollah. With regional nations abandoning the mediation effort, and the Saudi statement implying that something other than the unity-government construct is in prospect, the commitment to the status quo is looking weak.

The U.S. government might still play a decisive role, but the conditions are not propitious. The timing of Ambassador Robert Ford’s arrival in Syria — this week — makes it more likely that the U.S. will simply be seen as endorsing a Syrian-backed deal to install Omar Karami as prime minister. That move — a convenience to buy time — would merely put the status quo on life support. With no U.S. plan to prevent Hezbollah and Iran from exploiting the status quo in Lebanon, the other nations of the region are planning for a future beyond it.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

Another culture — not American — is where you should look for evil, says one of the savviest conservative observers. Back with a bang, she takes issue with Brent Bozell’s invocation of “Satan” to describe American culture: “I, too, believe in evil, and I’d say Satan’s found a far more mellifluous laughing-ground among the Muslims, who please themselves to bury women up to their heads and stone them to death for ‘adultery,’ murder their own daughters for ‘mingling,’ and practice forms of human sacrifice—selling their sons to Pashtun pedophiles, for one, or celebrating their childrens’ deaths in suicide bombings, for another. To name just a few of the ways Islam holds the Satan laugh hand at the moment. So enough with the wah, wah, wah, Brent. Bad as it may be here at culture-rotten central (or not), it’s worse out there among the practitioners of the culture and religion of peace.”

Another terrible ambassador nominated, this time for Turkey. Elliott Abrams explains: “”Especially in 2005 and 2006, Secretary Rice and the Bush administration significantly increased American pressure for greater respect for human rights and progress toward democracy in Egypt. This of course meant pushing the Mubarak regime, arguing with it in private, and sometimes criticizing it in public. In all of this we in Washington found Ambassador [Francis] Ricciardone to be without enthusiasm or energy.” And he was publicly insubordinate.  Other than that, great pick — who can wait in line behind Robert Ford to be confirmed.

Another reason not to take the UN seriously: “When the results of the international investigation into the sinking of the South Korean ship the Cheonan were released in May, the U.S. State Department was adamant that it believed North Korea was responsible — and that the country would have to face some actual punishment for killing 46 innocent South Korea sailors. … Fast forward to today, when the United Nations released a presidential statement which not only does not specify any consequences for the Kim Jong Il regime, but doesn’t even conclude that North Korea was responsible for the attack in the first place.” But the UN is certain the flotilla incident is all Israel’s fault.

Another inconvenient truth for the left: “The Obama administration would quickly send home six Algerians held at the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but for one problem: The men don’t want to go. Given the choice between repatriation and incarceration, the men choose Gitmo, according to their lawyers.”

Another awkward moment for Jewish groups. Obama declares that Israelis don’t like him because of his middle name; American Jewish leaders are mute. But Rep. Peter King isn’t: “‘That’s a terrible cheap shot. … And if he wants to get cute about it, King Hussein of Jordan was one of the best allies Israel ever had.’ … But his middle name ‘has nothing to do with it,’ King said. ‘The fact is that his policies from day one have had an anti-Israel overtone. … He has no one to blame but himself. He should forget his name — that’s just a cheap game and he should knock it off.’”

Another reason to dump Michael Steele: Haley Barbour could take over and would do a boffo job.

Another “Huh?” Clinton moment: he is officiating at the wedding of New York Rep. Anthony Weiner and a Hillary aide. Is he really the guy you want to lead the recitation of your wedding vows?

Another sign of the inherent good sense of the American people: Mark Penn, on the result of a survey for the Aspen Festival of Ideas, writes: “The poll suggests that, while the public may be dissatisfied with recent administrations and the partisan political environment, they remain reasonably satisfied with the governmental framework set out in the Constitution. By 64 to 19 they endorse the system of checks and balances as necessary to prevent one branch from dominating the Government. Freedom of speech was seen as far and away the single most important right guaranteed by the Constitution, and, as a corollary, only 28 percent believe the press has too much freedom.” I guess they don’t buy the suggestion that we are “ungovernable.”

Another outburst – and a reminder that the idea of engaging Iran is ludicrous: “Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad questioned the historic dimensions of the Holocaust but rejected the label of an anti-Semite, the Fars news agency reported Friday. …  Ahmadinejad had earlier sparked international fury by calling for the eradication of Israel from the Middle East and its relocation to Europe or North America and by describing the murders of 6 million European Jews by Germany’s Nazi regime as a ‘fairy tale.’ He said Thursday that the Holocaust was an excuse for Israel and the West to take land away from millions of Palestinians and give it to Israel.” You know the last world leader to argue that the Holocaust was the rationale for creation of the Jewish state was… Barack Obama. Just saying.

Another reason to rethink lifetime Supreme Court appointments: at the Aspen Ideas Festival, “Justice Ginsburg said, ‘I am so glad that Elena is joining us.’ … Calling herself a ‘flaming feminist,’ Ginsburg said, ‘we will never go back’ to the days when abortion was illegal.” Since her mind is closed and her bias is evident, she should recuse herself from gender-discrimination and abortion cases.

Another culture — not American — is where you should look for evil, says one of the savviest conservative observers. Back with a bang, she takes issue with Brent Bozell’s invocation of “Satan” to describe American culture: “I, too, believe in evil, and I’d say Satan’s found a far more mellifluous laughing-ground among the Muslims, who please themselves to bury women up to their heads and stone them to death for ‘adultery,’ murder their own daughters for ‘mingling,’ and practice forms of human sacrifice—selling their sons to Pashtun pedophiles, for one, or celebrating their childrens’ deaths in suicide bombings, for another. To name just a few of the ways Islam holds the Satan laugh hand at the moment. So enough with the wah, wah, wah, Brent. Bad as it may be here at culture-rotten central (or not), it’s worse out there among the practitioners of the culture and religion of peace.”

Another terrible ambassador nominated, this time for Turkey. Elliott Abrams explains: “”Especially in 2005 and 2006, Secretary Rice and the Bush administration significantly increased American pressure for greater respect for human rights and progress toward democracy in Egypt. This of course meant pushing the Mubarak regime, arguing with it in private, and sometimes criticizing it in public. In all of this we in Washington found Ambassador [Francis] Ricciardone to be without enthusiasm or energy.” And he was publicly insubordinate.  Other than that, great pick — who can wait in line behind Robert Ford to be confirmed.

Another reason not to take the UN seriously: “When the results of the international investigation into the sinking of the South Korean ship the Cheonan were released in May, the U.S. State Department was adamant that it believed North Korea was responsible — and that the country would have to face some actual punishment for killing 46 innocent South Korea sailors. … Fast forward to today, when the United Nations released a presidential statement which not only does not specify any consequences for the Kim Jong Il regime, but doesn’t even conclude that North Korea was responsible for the attack in the first place.” But the UN is certain the flotilla incident is all Israel’s fault.

Another inconvenient truth for the left: “The Obama administration would quickly send home six Algerians held at the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but for one problem: The men don’t want to go. Given the choice between repatriation and incarceration, the men choose Gitmo, according to their lawyers.”

Another awkward moment for Jewish groups. Obama declares that Israelis don’t like him because of his middle name; American Jewish leaders are mute. But Rep. Peter King isn’t: “‘That’s a terrible cheap shot. … And if he wants to get cute about it, King Hussein of Jordan was one of the best allies Israel ever had.’ … But his middle name ‘has nothing to do with it,’ King said. ‘The fact is that his policies from day one have had an anti-Israel overtone. … He has no one to blame but himself. He should forget his name — that’s just a cheap game and he should knock it off.’”

Another reason to dump Michael Steele: Haley Barbour could take over and would do a boffo job.

Another “Huh?” Clinton moment: he is officiating at the wedding of New York Rep. Anthony Weiner and a Hillary aide. Is he really the guy you want to lead the recitation of your wedding vows?

Another sign of the inherent good sense of the American people: Mark Penn, on the result of a survey for the Aspen Festival of Ideas, writes: “The poll suggests that, while the public may be dissatisfied with recent administrations and the partisan political environment, they remain reasonably satisfied with the governmental framework set out in the Constitution. By 64 to 19 they endorse the system of checks and balances as necessary to prevent one branch from dominating the Government. Freedom of speech was seen as far and away the single most important right guaranteed by the Constitution, and, as a corollary, only 28 percent believe the press has too much freedom.” I guess they don’t buy the suggestion that we are “ungovernable.”

Another outburst – and a reminder that the idea of engaging Iran is ludicrous: “Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad questioned the historic dimensions of the Holocaust but rejected the label of an anti-Semite, the Fars news agency reported Friday. …  Ahmadinejad had earlier sparked international fury by calling for the eradication of Israel from the Middle East and its relocation to Europe or North America and by describing the murders of 6 million European Jews by Germany’s Nazi regime as a ‘fairy tale.’ He said Thursday that the Holocaust was an excuse for Israel and the West to take land away from millions of Palestinians and give it to Israel.” You know the last world leader to argue that the Holocaust was the rationale for creation of the Jewish state was… Barack Obama. Just saying.

Another reason to rethink lifetime Supreme Court appointments: at the Aspen Ideas Festival, “Justice Ginsburg said, ‘I am so glad that Elena is joining us.’ … Calling herself a ‘flaming feminist,’ Ginsburg said, ‘we will never go back’ to the days when abortion was illegal.” Since her mind is closed and her bias is evident, she should recuse herself from gender-discrimination and abortion cases.

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It’s Not the State Department Duo, It’s the President

The State Department staffers whooping it up in Syria, a reader e-mails me, “have done something unpardonable: taken the actual policy (kissing up to the Syrian regime) and dramatized its true meaning instead of camouflaging it.” Another e-mail: “This is beyond disgraceful. These two ought to be fired, along with their bosses, and their bosses’ bosses.”

And that is really the lesson here. These two staffers are likely headed for the woodshed or the unemployment line, but they frankly did us a service by pulling back the curtain on the policy that Obama fancies and that his minions, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, among others, faithfully execute. Really, how different is this from what John Kerry does? As Lee Smith noted, it is “an open secret around town that the Massachusetts senator and his wife, Teresa, are enamored of Bashar al-Assad and his stylish first lady, Asma.” In February 2009, Kerry was spouting this rubbish:

“Syria could be, in fact, very helpful in helping to bring about a unity government,” Senator John Kerry told reporters after meeting President Bashar al-Assad.

“If you achieve that, then you have made a major step forward not only in dealing with the problems of Gaza but you have made a major step forward in terms of how you reignite discussions for the two-state solution. … I think that Syria indicated to me a willingness to be helpful in that respect.”

“I believe very deeply that this is an important moment of change, a moment of potential transformation, not just in the relationship between the United States and Syria but in the relationship of the region,” Kerry said. “While we will disagree on some issues for sure, what I heard and what I will take back with me and hopefully what we could put in place to take advantage of it, is the possibility of real cooperation on a number of different issues beginning immediately, beginning soon.”

And it was Obama who nominated Robert Ford and wanted (still does?) to send him to Damascus to show Assad that there is nothing to be lost and much to be gained by aggression toward Israel and by domestic repression. Recall too that Ford’s nomination came one day after “top State Department official William Burns went to Syria as part of Washington’s efforts to expand dialogue with Damascus on ‘all aspects’ of a strained relationship.”

So it’s not merely that this latest visit is “idiotic.” It’s that the entire approach to Syria – which throws bouquet after bouquet at the feet of Assad, to be greeted with scorn and contempt — is. After nearly 18 months of the fawn-a-thon, Assad is embracing Ahmadinejad in public news conferences, continuing to brutalize his own people, and testing U.S. resolve on enforcing UN Resolution 1701.

The two State Department staffers will get their comeuppance. When will the rest of the administration?

The State Department staffers whooping it up in Syria, a reader e-mails me, “have done something unpardonable: taken the actual policy (kissing up to the Syrian regime) and dramatized its true meaning instead of camouflaging it.” Another e-mail: “This is beyond disgraceful. These two ought to be fired, along with their bosses, and their bosses’ bosses.”

And that is really the lesson here. These two staffers are likely headed for the woodshed or the unemployment line, but they frankly did us a service by pulling back the curtain on the policy that Obama fancies and that his minions, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, among others, faithfully execute. Really, how different is this from what John Kerry does? As Lee Smith noted, it is “an open secret around town that the Massachusetts senator and his wife, Teresa, are enamored of Bashar al-Assad and his stylish first lady, Asma.” In February 2009, Kerry was spouting this rubbish:

“Syria could be, in fact, very helpful in helping to bring about a unity government,” Senator John Kerry told reporters after meeting President Bashar al-Assad.

“If you achieve that, then you have made a major step forward not only in dealing with the problems of Gaza but you have made a major step forward in terms of how you reignite discussions for the two-state solution. … I think that Syria indicated to me a willingness to be helpful in that respect.”

“I believe very deeply that this is an important moment of change, a moment of potential transformation, not just in the relationship between the United States and Syria but in the relationship of the region,” Kerry said. “While we will disagree on some issues for sure, what I heard and what I will take back with me and hopefully what we could put in place to take advantage of it, is the possibility of real cooperation on a number of different issues beginning immediately, beginning soon.”

And it was Obama who nominated Robert Ford and wanted (still does?) to send him to Damascus to show Assad that there is nothing to be lost and much to be gained by aggression toward Israel and by domestic repression. Recall too that Ford’s nomination came one day after “top State Department official William Burns went to Syria as part of Washington’s efforts to expand dialogue with Damascus on ‘all aspects’ of a strained relationship.”

So it’s not merely that this latest visit is “idiotic.” It’s that the entire approach to Syria – which throws bouquet after bouquet at the feet of Assad, to be greeted with scorn and contempt — is. After nearly 18 months of the fawn-a-thon, Assad is embracing Ahmadinejad in public news conferences, continuing to brutalize his own people, and testing U.S. resolve on enforcing UN Resolution 1701.

The two State Department staffers will get their comeuppance. When will the rest of the administration?

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GOP Says “No” to Syrian Engagement

Josh Rogin reports:

Twelve Republican senators wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Friday to let her know they intend to block the nomination of Robert Ford, whom President Obama has named to become the first U.S. ambassador to Syria in five years.

In the letter, 12 Republican senators, any one of whom could hold up the Ford nomination, said they weren’t satisfied with the State Department’s latest attempt to alleviate their concerns about sending an envoy to Damascus amid allegations that the Syrian government may have sent Scud missiles to the terrorist group Hezbollah.

The senators aren’t buying State’s argument that sending an ambassador to Syria is not a reward, but rather a smart way to engage and perhaps even persuade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stop taking provocative actions.

“If engagement precludes prompt punitive action in response to egregious behavior, such as the transfer of long range missiles to a terrorist group, then it is not only a concession but also a reward for such behavior,” the letter reads.

A few points are noteworthy. First, is every single Democrat going along with the Ford nomination? Apparently, when the White House barks, they all jump.

Second, it appears Hillary Clinton didn’t bother to respond to an earlier inquiry: “Indicating some pique that Clinton didn’t respond to their last letter on this subject, they write tersely, ‘We would appreciate a response from you personally.’” Maybe it did not make her to-do list.

And finally, 12 is more than enough for a filibuster, so the choice for Obama now is whether to pull the nomination or suffer an embarrassing defeat. I suspect the vote won’t be scheduled anytime soon. If that proves to be the case, then this is an important watershed — the Republican senators have risen up to block a disastrous foreign-policy move. We can only hope that this is the beginning of a trend.

Josh Rogin reports:

Twelve Republican senators wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Friday to let her know they intend to block the nomination of Robert Ford, whom President Obama has named to become the first U.S. ambassador to Syria in five years.

In the letter, 12 Republican senators, any one of whom could hold up the Ford nomination, said they weren’t satisfied with the State Department’s latest attempt to alleviate their concerns about sending an envoy to Damascus amid allegations that the Syrian government may have sent Scud missiles to the terrorist group Hezbollah.

The senators aren’t buying State’s argument that sending an ambassador to Syria is not a reward, but rather a smart way to engage and perhaps even persuade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stop taking provocative actions.

“If engagement precludes prompt punitive action in response to egregious behavior, such as the transfer of long range missiles to a terrorist group, then it is not only a concession but also a reward for such behavior,” the letter reads.

A few points are noteworthy. First, is every single Democrat going along with the Ford nomination? Apparently, when the White House barks, they all jump.

Second, it appears Hillary Clinton didn’t bother to respond to an earlier inquiry: “Indicating some pique that Clinton didn’t respond to their last letter on this subject, they write tersely, ‘We would appreciate a response from you personally.’” Maybe it did not make her to-do list.

And finally, 12 is more than enough for a filibuster, so the choice for Obama now is whether to pull the nomination or suffer an embarrassing defeat. I suspect the vote won’t be scheduled anytime soon. If that proves to be the case, then this is an important watershed — the Republican senators have risen up to block a disastrous foreign-policy move. We can only hope that this is the beginning of a trend.

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Obama’s Syrian Policy Collapses

Obama’s Syrian engagement policy is in shambles. The decision to return our ambassador to Damascus has earned us the contempt of Bashar al-Assad and has done nothing to halt his embrace of Iran. We’ve now seen that Assad has upped the ante with the transfer of scud missiles to Hezbollah. This report suggests that the Obami then went a step further in the appeasement dance — calling off an Israeli attack:

Although US officials contacted by The National could not completely confirm that such [missile] technology had been transferred to Hizbollah by Syria, one official privy to intelligence briefings confirmed a story previously reported in the Israeli press that in the weeks before Senator John Kerry’s visit to Damascus on April 1, Israel almost bombed what it claimed was a convoy of advanced weaponry headed from Syrian military bases to Hizbollah along the shared border with Lebanon.

“I can’t promise you that planes were actually in the air, but it was close, very close,” said the official. “The White House had to talk them down from the attack and promised that Kerry would use strong language” with the Syrian president, Bashar Assad.

When asked about the outcome of the meeting between Mr Kerry and Mr Assad on the issue, the source tartly responded: “In light of where we are now, what do you think?”

Besides increasing the possibility of violence along one of the world’s most tense borders, the claim of new weapons transfers had also had a debilitating effect on supporters of Syrian engagement in Washington and might be responsible for a “hold” put on the February nomination of Robert Ford as the US ambassador to Syria.

So what did we gain by waving off the Israelis? Another dollop of contempt. We have conveyed — both to Syria and its Iranian partner — that we will not respond to provocation and, in fact, will restrain Israel from doing so. In a neat package we have all the elements of Obama’s foolish and dangerous Middle East policy — ingratiation with despots, unilateral gestures, the failure to project American power, and the collapse of the U.S.-Israel alliance that has acted as a successful deterrent for decades. A more complete picture of failure would be hard to paint. Are we  realpolitiking yet?

Obama’s Syrian engagement policy is in shambles. The decision to return our ambassador to Damascus has earned us the contempt of Bashar al-Assad and has done nothing to halt his embrace of Iran. We’ve now seen that Assad has upped the ante with the transfer of scud missiles to Hezbollah. This report suggests that the Obami then went a step further in the appeasement dance — calling off an Israeli attack:

Although US officials contacted by The National could not completely confirm that such [missile] technology had been transferred to Hizbollah by Syria, one official privy to intelligence briefings confirmed a story previously reported in the Israeli press that in the weeks before Senator John Kerry’s visit to Damascus on April 1, Israel almost bombed what it claimed was a convoy of advanced weaponry headed from Syrian military bases to Hizbollah along the shared border with Lebanon.

“I can’t promise you that planes were actually in the air, but it was close, very close,” said the official. “The White House had to talk them down from the attack and promised that Kerry would use strong language” with the Syrian president, Bashar Assad.

When asked about the outcome of the meeting between Mr Kerry and Mr Assad on the issue, the source tartly responded: “In light of where we are now, what do you think?”

Besides increasing the possibility of violence along one of the world’s most tense borders, the claim of new weapons transfers had also had a debilitating effect on supporters of Syrian engagement in Washington and might be responsible for a “hold” put on the February nomination of Robert Ford as the US ambassador to Syria.

So what did we gain by waving off the Israelis? Another dollop of contempt. We have conveyed — both to Syria and its Iranian partner — that we will not respond to provocation and, in fact, will restrain Israel from doing so. In a neat package we have all the elements of Obama’s foolish and dangerous Middle East policy — ingratiation with despots, unilateral gestures, the failure to project American power, and the collapse of the U.S.-Israel alliance that has acted as a successful deterrent for decades. A more complete picture of failure would be hard to paint. Are we  realpolitiking yet?

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The Innocents Pack for Damascus

Lebanese scholar Tony Badran quotes Robert Ford, President Barack Obama’s unconfirmed pick for ambassador to Syria, and Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, making statements last week that are breathtaking in their disconnection from reality.

Kerry said he believes Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, “understands that his country’s long-term interests … are not well served by aligning Syria with a revolutionary Shiite regime in Iran and its terrorist clients.” Ford, at the same time, said the U.S. “must persuade Syria that neither Iran nor Hezbollah shares Syria’s long-term strategic interest in … peace.”

These statements are simply off-planet. Either Kerry and Ford don’t know the first thing about how the Syrian government perceives its own interests, or they’re making stuff up for the sake of diplomacy.

It could be the latter. That happens. In Baghdad in 2008, a U.S. Army officer told me that the U.S. said things that weren’t strictly true about Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia to make it easier for him to save face, climb down out of his tree, and cut a deal. The American and Iraqi armies were still fighting his men in the streets but pretended they were only battling it out with rogue forces called “Special Groups.”

“We are giving the office of Moqtada al-Sadr a door,” the officer said. “We want them to be a political entity, not a military entity. So if you’re fighting coalition forces or the Iraqi army, we’ll say you’re a Special Groups leader or a Special Groups member.”

“So,” I said, “this is like the make-believe distinctions between military wings and political wings of Hamas and Hezbollah?”

“Yes,” he said. “That’s it. That’s exactly it.”

I’d like to give Kerry and Ford the benefit of the doubt here and assume that that’s what they’re doing with Assad, that they know Syria’s alliance with Iran is three decades old and therefore well thought-out and durable, that they know his foreign policy goal is one of “resistance” rather than peace, but I have my doubts. They otherwise shouldn’t find engaging him worth the humiliation and bother.

The U.S. military used diplomatic fictions to help convince Sadr to cool it, but he was actively losing a war at the time. He was, shall we say, open to constructive suggestions. Assad is not losing anything. On the contrary, he has all but reconsolidated his overlordship in Lebanon through terrorism and warlordism, and his patron regime in Tehran is on the brink of becoming a nuclear-armed mini regional superpower. Kerry and Ford should know they can no more flip Syria into our column than they could have lured East Germany out of the Soviet bloc during the Brezhnev era.

Diplomatic fictions have their time and place, but there’s a downside. Unsophisticated players, observers, and analysts begin to believe them and no longer understand what is actually happening. Residents of the Washington, D.C., bubble are especially susceptible, but I’ve met American journalists who live in the Middle East who don’t understand that Assad strives not for peace and stability but rather for revolution, terrorism, and war. (They might want to reread The Truth About Syria by Barry Rubin and Syria’s Terrorist War on Lebanon and the Peace Process by Marius Deeb.)

If some Americans who live in and write about the Middle East have a hard time with this, I am not optimistic that the truth has fully penetrated the Beltway, especially when policy, as well as public statements, seems to be based on this fantasy.

Kerry and Ford are undoubtedly intelligent people, or they’d be in a different line of work, but getting leverage and results in the Middle East requires something more. “American elites have a hard time distinguishing between intelligence and cunning,” Lee Smith, author of The Strong Horse, said to me recently, “largely because their lives do not depend on them outwitting murderous rivals. In hard places, intelligent people is what the cunning eat for lunch.”

Engaging Syria and describing Assad as a reasonable man would make sense if something epic had just happened that might convince him to run his calculations again, such as the overthrow or collapse of Ali Khamenei’s government in Iran. Otherwise, the administration is setting itself up for another failure in the Middle East that will damage its — no, our — credibility. One good thing will probably come of it, though. The naifs will learn. They’ll learn it the hard way, which seems to be the only way most of us learn anything over there. But they’ll learn.

Lebanese scholar Tony Badran quotes Robert Ford, President Barack Obama’s unconfirmed pick for ambassador to Syria, and Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, making statements last week that are breathtaking in their disconnection from reality.

Kerry said he believes Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, “understands that his country’s long-term interests … are not well served by aligning Syria with a revolutionary Shiite regime in Iran and its terrorist clients.” Ford, at the same time, said the U.S. “must persuade Syria that neither Iran nor Hezbollah shares Syria’s long-term strategic interest in … peace.”

These statements are simply off-planet. Either Kerry and Ford don’t know the first thing about how the Syrian government perceives its own interests, or they’re making stuff up for the sake of diplomacy.

It could be the latter. That happens. In Baghdad in 2008, a U.S. Army officer told me that the U.S. said things that weren’t strictly true about Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia to make it easier for him to save face, climb down out of his tree, and cut a deal. The American and Iraqi armies were still fighting his men in the streets but pretended they were only battling it out with rogue forces called “Special Groups.”

“We are giving the office of Moqtada al-Sadr a door,” the officer said. “We want them to be a political entity, not a military entity. So if you’re fighting coalition forces or the Iraqi army, we’ll say you’re a Special Groups leader or a Special Groups member.”

“So,” I said, “this is like the make-believe distinctions between military wings and political wings of Hamas and Hezbollah?”

“Yes,” he said. “That’s it. That’s exactly it.”

I’d like to give Kerry and Ford the benefit of the doubt here and assume that that’s what they’re doing with Assad, that they know Syria’s alliance with Iran is three decades old and therefore well thought-out and durable, that they know his foreign policy goal is one of “resistance” rather than peace, but I have my doubts. They otherwise shouldn’t find engaging him worth the humiliation and bother.

The U.S. military used diplomatic fictions to help convince Sadr to cool it, but he was actively losing a war at the time. He was, shall we say, open to constructive suggestions. Assad is not losing anything. On the contrary, he has all but reconsolidated his overlordship in Lebanon through terrorism and warlordism, and his patron regime in Tehran is on the brink of becoming a nuclear-armed mini regional superpower. Kerry and Ford should know they can no more flip Syria into our column than they could have lured East Germany out of the Soviet bloc during the Brezhnev era.

Diplomatic fictions have their time and place, but there’s a downside. Unsophisticated players, observers, and analysts begin to believe them and no longer understand what is actually happening. Residents of the Washington, D.C., bubble are especially susceptible, but I’ve met American journalists who live in the Middle East who don’t understand that Assad strives not for peace and stability but rather for revolution, terrorism, and war. (They might want to reread The Truth About Syria by Barry Rubin and Syria’s Terrorist War on Lebanon and the Peace Process by Marius Deeb.)

If some Americans who live in and write about the Middle East have a hard time with this, I am not optimistic that the truth has fully penetrated the Beltway, especially when policy, as well as public statements, seems to be based on this fantasy.

Kerry and Ford are undoubtedly intelligent people, or they’d be in a different line of work, but getting leverage and results in the Middle East requires something more. “American elites have a hard time distinguishing between intelligence and cunning,” Lee Smith, author of The Strong Horse, said to me recently, “largely because their lives do not depend on them outwitting murderous rivals. In hard places, intelligent people is what the cunning eat for lunch.”

Engaging Syria and describing Assad as a reasonable man would make sense if something epic had just happened that might convince him to run his calculations again, such as the overthrow or collapse of Ali Khamenei’s government in Iran. Otherwise, the administration is setting itself up for another failure in the Middle East that will damage its — no, our — credibility. One good thing will probably come of it, though. The naifs will learn. They’ll learn it the hard way, which seems to be the only way most of us learn anything over there. But they’ll learn.

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RE: Must We Waste Another Year?

I heartily agree with your take, Michael. Yet the Obama administration, in its latest bout of fruitless and counterproductive suck-uppery, is returning its ambassador to Syria. How’s that going? Not well:

The presidents of Iran and Syria on Thursday ridiculed U.S. policy in the region and pledged to create a Middle East “without Zionists,” combining a slap at recent U.S. overtures and a threat to Israel with an endorsement of one of the region’s defining alliances. … The message delivered by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a joint news conference was sharp and spoke to a shared sense that Iran is gaining influence in the region despite U.S. efforts. Until the outcome of the broader struggle over Iran’s nuclear program becomes clear, analysts here say, it is unlikely Syria will change direction — or that progress can be made toward an Israel-Syria peace agreement.

But we are opening our hand to Syria, sending Robert Ford back to Damascus, reversing the decision to pull our representative following the murder in 2005 of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Isn’t that enough to begin to lure Syria from Iran, its partner in state-sponsored terrorism? It seems not:

The United States wants “to dominate the region, but they feel Iran and Syria are preventing that,” Ahmadinejad said. “We tell them that instead of interfering in the region’s affairs, to pack their things and leave.” Ahmadinejad, a Holocaust denier, spoke of Israel’s eventual “demise and annihilation” and said the countries of the region could create a future “without Zionists and without colonialists.” Assad criticized what he regarded as the United States’ “new situation of colonialism” in the region, with troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, and pressure on Syria to split from Iran, a friendship Assad emphasized was secure even given Syria’s faltering economy.

The notion that unilateral gestures and muteness on Syrian human-rights atrocities can break the bond between Tehran and Damascus is not new among Foggy Bottom types. But there are few true believers as devoted as Hillary Clinton. (“Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday that the return of an ambassador marked a ‘slight opening’ toward Syria but that ultimately the United States expects Assad to curb his ties with Iran and his support for militant groups like the Lebanon-based Hezbollah and Hamas, based in the Gaza Strip.”) Nevertheless it is a gambit divorced from reality, as the two despots made clear for the umpteenth time. (“But Assad and Ahmadinejad on Thursday emphasized that their countries’ relationship had deepened with the signing of an agreement waiving visa restrictions for travel.”)

Alas, as in all things Obami on the foreign-policy front, we have moved the ball backward, not forward. As Iran flaunts its unchecked nuclear ambitions and as America continues to leave doors open to those who want not to be engaged, Syria draws ever closer to the perceived strong horse in the region. Once again, the Obami have nothing to show, and much to explain, in their serial foreign-policy malpractice.

<a href=”http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/246731″>Michael</a>

I heartily agree with your take, Michael. Yet the Obama administration, in its latest bout of fruitless and counterproductive suck-uppery, is returning its ambassador to Syria. How’s that going? Not well:

The presidents of Iran and Syria on Thursday ridiculed U.S. policy in the region and pledged to create a Middle East “without Zionists,” combining a slap at recent U.S. overtures and a threat to Israel with an endorsement of one of the region’s defining alliances. … The message delivered by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a joint news conference was sharp and spoke to a shared sense that Iran is gaining influence in the region despite U.S. efforts. Until the outcome of the broader struggle over Iran’s nuclear program becomes clear, analysts here say, it is unlikely Syria will change direction — or that progress can be made toward an Israel-Syria peace agreement.

But we are opening our hand to Syria, sending Robert Ford back to Damascus, reversing the decision to pull our representative following the murder in 2005 of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Isn’t that enough to begin to lure Syria from Iran, its partner in state-sponsored terrorism? It seems not:

The United States wants “to dominate the region, but they feel Iran and Syria are preventing that,” Ahmadinejad said. “We tell them that instead of interfering in the region’s affairs, to pack their things and leave.” Ahmadinejad, a Holocaust denier, spoke of Israel’s eventual “demise and annihilation” and said the countries of the region could create a future “without Zionists and without colonialists.” Assad criticized what he regarded as the United States’ “new situation of colonialism” in the region, with troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, and pressure on Syria to split from Iran, a friendship Assad emphasized was secure even given Syria’s faltering economy.

The notion that unilateral gestures and muteness on Syrian human-rights atrocities can break the bond between Tehran and Damascus is not new among Foggy Bottom types. But there are few true believers as devoted as Hillary Clinton. (“Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday that the return of an ambassador marked a ‘slight opening’ toward Syria but that ultimately the United States expects Assad to curb his ties with Iran and his support for militant groups like the Lebanon-based Hezbollah and Hamas, based in the Gaza Strip.”) Nevertheless it is a gambit divorced from reality, as the two despots made clear for the umpteenth time. (“But Assad and Ahmadinejad on Thursday emphasized that their countries’ relationship had deepened with the signing of an agreement waiving visa restrictions for travel.”)

Alas, as in all things Obami on the foreign-policy front, we have moved the ball backward, not forward. As Iran flaunts its unchecked nuclear ambitions and as America continues to leave doors open to those who want not to be engaged, Syria draws ever closer to the perceived strong horse in the region. Once again, the Obami have nothing to show, and much to explain, in their serial foreign-policy malpractice.

<a href=”http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/246731″>Michael</a>

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A Good Choice for a Bad Job

I am not sure that the U.S. should be sending an ambassador back to Syria, which continues to play the old game of saying it wants better relations with the West while simultaneously meddling in Lebanese affairs, trying to acquire nuclear arms, stockpiling chemical weapons, repressing all internal opposition, working with Iran to arm Hezbollah and Hamas, facilitating Sunni terrorist operations in Iraq, and generally harming the overall prospects of peace and stability in the Middle East. Damascus is likely to see the appointment of a top American diplomat as a reward for its disruptive behavior — especially when, as Michael Young notes, the U.N. investigation into the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which could have put serious pressure on Syria to reform, is going nowhere fast. The Bush administration withdrew our ambassador from Damascus in 2005 to protest the Hariri assassination, which was undoubtedly engineered from Syria. No one in Syria has been held accountable, and yet here comes our ambassador calling.

That said, if we are going to send an ambassador to Damascus, it is hard to think of a better choice than Robert Ford. He is currently deputy chief of mission in Iraq, and it was in that capacity that I met with him on my visit to Baghdad last fall. I came away extremely impressed by this career diplomat, who speaks fluent Arabic and has previously served as the U.S. ambassador in Algeria. I realize that State Department Arabists have a checkered reputation — see Robert Kaplan’s fine book on that subject, which makes it clear that too often the Arabists have adopted a “see-no-evil attitude” toward the Arabs while displaying unremitting hostility to the Israelis. Bob Ford isn’t like that at all. I found him to be a singularly shrewd, insightful, and clear-eyed analyst of Iraqi politics. In fact, I left his office wondering why he wasn’t appointed ambassador in place of Chris Hill, who has no background in the Middle East.

Ford will be the best possible American representative in Damascus. I just hope he will not be forced to front for an Obama-esque policy of appeasement. It is possible that after the failure of engagement in Iran, the administration will now redouble its efforts to reach some kind of accommodation with Syria that will enhance rather than diminish the troublemaking capacity of the Alawite clique at the center of Syrian politics.

I am not sure that the U.S. should be sending an ambassador back to Syria, which continues to play the old game of saying it wants better relations with the West while simultaneously meddling in Lebanese affairs, trying to acquire nuclear arms, stockpiling chemical weapons, repressing all internal opposition, working with Iran to arm Hezbollah and Hamas, facilitating Sunni terrorist operations in Iraq, and generally harming the overall prospects of peace and stability in the Middle East. Damascus is likely to see the appointment of a top American diplomat as a reward for its disruptive behavior — especially when, as Michael Young notes, the U.N. investigation into the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which could have put serious pressure on Syria to reform, is going nowhere fast. The Bush administration withdrew our ambassador from Damascus in 2005 to protest the Hariri assassination, which was undoubtedly engineered from Syria. No one in Syria has been held accountable, and yet here comes our ambassador calling.

That said, if we are going to send an ambassador to Damascus, it is hard to think of a better choice than Robert Ford. He is currently deputy chief of mission in Iraq, and it was in that capacity that I met with him on my visit to Baghdad last fall. I came away extremely impressed by this career diplomat, who speaks fluent Arabic and has previously served as the U.S. ambassador in Algeria. I realize that State Department Arabists have a checkered reputation — see Robert Kaplan’s fine book on that subject, which makes it clear that too often the Arabists have adopted a “see-no-evil attitude” toward the Arabs while displaying unremitting hostility to the Israelis. Bob Ford isn’t like that at all. I found him to be a singularly shrewd, insightful, and clear-eyed analyst of Iraqi politics. In fact, I left his office wondering why he wasn’t appointed ambassador in place of Chris Hill, who has no background in the Middle East.

Ford will be the best possible American representative in Damascus. I just hope he will not be forced to front for an Obama-esque policy of appeasement. It is possible that after the failure of engagement in Iran, the administration will now redouble its efforts to reach some kind of accommodation with Syria that will enhance rather than diminish the troublemaking capacity of the Alawite clique at the center of Syrian politics.

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