SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
In the midst of heated developments in Iran two weeks back, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham blasted the Obama Administration over its hands-off attitude. Suddenly, newspapers began to report that the Obama Administration was going to appoint an ambassador to Syria. Is there a connection between these two events? The leak about the ambassadorial appointment seemed calculated to send a message: President Obama and his team are very sophisticated players. They have this well in hand. And they will use the current unrest in Iran to begin separating Iran from its proxies in the region, starting with Syria. Whatever the merits of that strategy—and I am an advocate of just this approach–the manner and timing of the disclosure raises some troubling questions. Jim Hoagland reports further on this in the Washington Post:
Surprised to see the news the other day that the Obama administration is sending an ambassador back to Syria? So were officials in Hillary Clinton’s State Department. They were still hoping to win more movement from Damascus on Middle East issues when President Obama’s decision was leaked. The diplomatic consequences of a rare crossed wire within this controlled administration are difficult to measure. Syria was being asked to help stop terrorist acts such as the bombings that hit northwestern Iraq last week, diplomatic sources tell me.
I’m told the recommendation came in a memo from Mitchell to Clinton and Obama after his mid-June meeting with Syrian President Assad. The decision was discussed in a Deputies Committee that included the powerful Deputy Secretary of State, Jim Steinberg as well as a Mitchell aide, Fred Hoff. Clinton’s personal staff on the seventh floor was aware of the recommendation before it was announced, as was the Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman.
But the issue here was not about whether an ambassador would be posted to Damascus, it is about the timing and circumstances of the announcement. At the time word of the decision leaked, an interagency study had been underway. Diplomats and national security experts were looking for the “gives” to be sought from Syria in exchange for normalization of relations. That would most likely have consisted of requiring Syria to demonstrate good faith by relaxing its chokehold on some figures in Lebanon or by voicing willingness to engage Israel in discussions leading to a border accord. But the decision to float the appointment—a decision that seems to have been taken by a public affairs figure in the White House, most likely at the National Security Council—scuttled that effort. As a result, Damascus gets a new U.S. ambassador, and it doesn’t have to give up anything in exchange.
Whatever you think about the appointment of an ambassador, this points to some foolishness. And the circumstances suggest that it was an effort to answer Republican critics, not the implementation of a carefully assessed foreign policy. In general, the Obama team has shown a high degree of professionalism in its foreign policy dealings, but this is evidence of immaturity. It suggests that some critical deciders in the White House are operating in campaign mode, reacting to the verbal assaults of last year’s G.O.P. presidential contender. This is no way to be conducting foreign policy.
More from Scott Horton:
Six Questions — October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm
Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.
Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp
From the June 2014 issue
Hours per day that a death-row inmate in China wears hand and ankle restraints:
A multidisciplinary team detected cardiac arrhythmia in the works of Beethoven.
There was a run on cases of 5.56mm M855 green-tip rifle bullets, after the White House moved to ban their manufacture and sale because they can pierce police armor.
Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!
“He could be one of a million beach-bound, black-socked Florida retirees, not the man who, by some odd happenstance of life, possesses the brain of Albert Einstein — literally cut it out of the dead scientist's head.”