In December, the Obama administration acted on intelligence showing that Bashar al-Assad was preparing to use chemical weapons against his own people. Obama publicly warned the Syrian president and, according to the New York Times, “private messages sent to Assad and his military commanders through Russia and others… stopped the chemical mixing and the bomb preparation.” As one senior defense official told the Times, “I think the Russians understood this is the one thing that could get us to intervene in the war.”
It seems that the administration has become so accustomed to broadcasting its real or imagined triumphs through the paper of record that it is numb to how the rest of the world might perceive the White House’s carefully crafted self-image. The administration applauds itself for saving Syrians from death by chemical weapons, but only underscores the fact that, despite its many excuses and equivocations, it is indeed capable of stopping the slaughter. Instead Obama has opted to stand by idly while Assad, using conventional arms, has collected 60,000 corpses.
The Syrian dictator has no cause to be more concerned now that Obama has nominated the national security staff of his second-term cabinet. John Kerry as secretary of state, Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense and John Brennan as CIA director are unlikely to urge the president to get tougher on Assad—i.e., to set up a no-fly zone, to arm the rebels, to intervene for humanitarian purposes—because these are precisely the policymakers who over the last decade or more have been most eager to extend a friendly hand to Assad and his allies, including Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.
“Peace comes through dealing with people,” Hagel said after his 1998 meeting with then Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father. “Peace doesn’t come at the end of a bayonet or the end of a gun.” Hagel has presumably applied the same principle in counseling that the United States should engage Hamas and Iran, and in declining to vote to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps a terrorist organization in 2007, when it was the height of its campaign against U.S. troops in Iraq. The problem with Hagel then is not that he prefers carrots to sticks, but that he has no other policy but talk, even when American enemies are pointing a gun or a bayonet at us, or our allies.
Hagel, Kerry, and Brennan have consistently misread the intentions and calculations of America’s Middle East adversaries. Their picture of the Middle East is not grounded in an accurate understanding of the region’s forces and furies, but is rather drawn from a dream world in which it is possible to turn enemies into allies, lions into lambs, simply through the magical power of words. As Hagel, Kerry, and Brennan are incapable of comprehending the nature of our adversaries through the pattern of their actions, these three, through their dealings with the region, have also left a discernible pattern, a worrisome pattern.
Syria was John Kerry’s pet project. With the Bush administration still in office, Kerry and Hagel co-authored a 2008 Wall Street Journal article arguing that it was time to end the White House’s policy of isolating Syria. That sentiment resonated with Obama and the Massachusetts senator became the new administration’s “key interlocutor with Syrian president Bashar al Assad,” visiting Damascus at least a half dozen times between 2009 and 2011, where, said Kerry, “Assad has been very generous with me in terms of the discussions we have had.”
Where other U.S. lawmakers were wary of getting too chummy with an Arab despot who jailed, tortured, and murdered dissidents, supported terrorist groups, accumulated a chemical weapons stockpile, built a secret nuclear weapons facility, was alleged to be responsible for the assassination of the former prime minister of Lebanon and other Lebanese political figures and journalists, and had facilitated jihadist attacks on American troops in Iraq, Kerry saw an opportunity. Dialoguing with a dictator during the first three years of Obama’s presidency is how he auditioned for the secretary of state job.
It wasn’t until a month or so after the uprising against Assad began that Kerry started to hedge his bets on Assad. Up until Syrian forces opened fire on what was then an unarmed opposition, Kerry took him at his word. “President Assad said to me,” Kerry recalled for a Washington audience in March 2011, “you know, I have 500,000 kids turning 18 every year. And I want jobs for them. I want education opportunity for them.” Kerry was making his case for Damascus’s catcher in the rye shortly after Assad’s security forces tortured teenagers for writing anti-regime graffiti on a wall in Deraa.
Later that month, as the news of the tortured boys spread throughout Syria and the uprising kicked off in other cities, Kerry presided over the nomination hearing for the new U.S. ambassador to Syria—the first to be sent to Damascus since the Bush administration withdrew its envoy in the wake of the February 2005 murder of Lebanon’s Rafik Hariri. “Diplomacy is not a prize,” said Kerry, echoing a favorite slogan of the president he will soon be working for. “I believe that with confident, carefully calibrated diplomacy,” said Kerry, “we can show Damascus what it stands to gain by moderating its behavior—and what it stands to lose by going in the other direction.”
But over the course of more than four decades, the United States has almost never exacted any price from Syria for not “moderating its behavior.” The Assad regime, from father Hafez to Bashar, killed and continues to kill with impunity. In the zero-sum thinking of Middle Eastern regimes, failure to punish a transgressor is the same as a reward. In that same mental universe, engagement with a superpower lends one’s domestic and regional standing inestimable prestige. Therefore, from the perspective of U.S. adversaries, diplomacy is a very big prize. The question that neither Kerry, nor any of the other cabinet nominees, nor Obama himself, seem to have ever bothered asking is whether presenting your enemies with such a gift outweighs the damage that it might do to U.S. interests and American allies.
As Kerry saw an opening with Syria, John Brennan sees Hezbollah similarly. "Hezbollah is a very interesting organization," Brennan said in May 2010. "There is certainly the elements of Hezbollah that are truly a concern to us what they're doing. And what we need to do is to find ways to diminish their influence within the organization and to try to build up the more moderate elements.”
Brennan it seems was well aware of the problems that Hezbollah poses for American interests—and that between its attacks on the U.S. embassy in Beirut in 1982 and the Marine barracks in 1983, as well as other smaller operations, it had killed hundreds of Americans. The question is where did Brennan get the idea that there were moderate elements among Lebanon’s Islamic Resistance?
Before joining the Obama administration as counterterrorism adviser, the longtime CIA official published “The Conundrum of Iran: Strengthening Moderates without Acquiescing to Belligerence” that described a strategy for engaging “moderates” not only in the Islamic Republic, but also within its Lebanese arm, Hezbollah.
“It would not be foolhardy, however, for the United States to tolerate, and even to encourage, greater assimilation of Hezbollah into Lebanon’s political system,” wrote Brennan. “Hezbollah is already represented in the Lebanese parliament and its members have previously served in the Lebanese cabinet, reflections of Hezbollah’s interest in shaping Lebanon’s political future from within government institutions.”
Two months before Brennan’s paper was published, the government of Lebanon, led by the U.S.-supported March 14 movement, moved to disable Hezbollah’s private communications system and dismiss a security chief who helped ensure Hezbollah control of the Beirut airport. In retaliation, Hezbollah attempted a coup against the government, storming West Beirut and the Chouf mountains and killing more than 50 of their fellow Lebanese. Hezbollah is willing to use the Lebanese political system only insofar as it advances its own cause. Otherwise, Hezbollah is willing and able to go to war with the rest of Lebanon.
Nonetheless, Brennan argued that it was advisable “to increase Hezbollah’s stake in Lebanon’s struggling democratic processes.” The militia’s evolution, wrote Brennan, “into a fully vested player in the Lebanese political system has been accompanied by a marked reduction in terrorist attacks carried out by the organization.” However, the facts belie Brennan’s assessment. In June 2011, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon named four Hezbollah operatives responsible for the 2005 murder of Rafik Hariri. The car bombing killing the former prime minister, along with 22 others, was the most spectacular in a series of terrorist operations targeting anti-Hezbollah and anti-Syria activists, politicians and security officials between 2004-2012. The four suspects in the Hariri murder included the cousin of legendary Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh, Mustafa Badreddine, who had previously been on death row in Kuwait for plotting a series of terrorist attacks in the Gulf nation, including the bombing of the American embassy.
Over the course of thirty years, Hezbollah has never changed its colors. But for Brennan, the sticky part for U.S. interests is not the unchanging nature of a terrorist organization, but the intransigence of an American ally. “Because Israel views Hezbollah as a serious and lethal adversary, this will not be an easy sell,” Brennan wrote. Perhaps one way to get the Israelis on board, he argued, “would be if Iran were willing to press Hezbollah to cease its attacks against civilian targets and to declare so publicly.” Brennan fails to explain why it is in the national interest to “sell” this idea to Israel—or what the United States is likely to risk by embarking on a diplomatic initiative that is based not on facts, nor Hezbollah’s, as well as Iran’s, clearly marked pattern of behavior, but rather on fantasy.
In this view of the Middle East, Israel is a convenient placeholder. Whether it’s because of the Israeli-Arab peace process, or Israeli security needs, this distorted version of Israel serves as the default rationale explaining why the United States might have problems accomplishing its aims, even when, as in Brennan’s case, there is no clear reason why America has an interest in empowering Hezbollah at the expense of U.S. allies in Lebanon.
Kerry has also subscribed to this grotesque perspective of Israel at times. Just as the Syrian uprising began, the senator expressed concern about the aftermath of Assad’s fall. “Given Israel there are paramount considerations of what or what not might ensue,” Kerry said. Why Israel was the chief concern when the United States has allies on every border of Syria is unclear. But the Obama administration voiced the same worries—repeatedly leaking to the press that among the reasons for its refusal to take action to help topple Assad were concerns for Israeli security. However, the Israeli ambassador to Washington Michael Oren dispelled these claims in a letter to the Wall Street Journal, and by May 2011 all of Israel’s top officials—prime minister, defense minister, foreign minister, and president—had stated publicly that they were eager to see Assad gone, three months before Obama called on the Syrian dictator to step down. The fact is that it was convenient for the White House to make Israel responsible for its own failed Syria policy.
The Obama administration now says that Assad has lost his legitimacy. The Russians want Assad to stick around until, at least, elections in 2014, and the State Department says this is unacceptable. But that’s Hillary Clinton’s State Department. The same bureaucracy run by Kerry, a man who’s shared meals with Assad and his wife, who’s made the case for his “secular” regime in a sea of Sunni fanaticism, might have a very different, and he’ll have Obama’s ear.
Obama’s second cabinet is his real cabinet. Clinton, Gates, and Petraeus were Obama’s moves on a political gameboard, but Kerry, Hagel and Brennan are about Obama’s policy. That is why the Iranian foreign ministry congratulated Obama on the Hagel nomination. Tehran has read Obama’s moves and sees that he is stacking the deck for a grand bargain that, Iran hopes, will secure Iranian interests throughout the region—including perhaps even Assad’s survival. In any case, U.S. adversaries throughout the region are sleeping a little better these days, knowing that the Americans in high places have no other policy right now but talk.