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A Funny Thing Happened on the Road to Damascus

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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.

Shortly thereafter, Ben Smith, after first agreeing with the subtance of the Hoagland piece, posted a reservation about this paragraph:

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.

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