US State Secretary John Kerry admitted at the Vienna press-conference that he had not been informed about the decision of President Obama to deploy Special Operations Forces (SOF) in Syria. This fact confirms the rumors that have been circulating in Washington for a long time.
There are serious contradictions turning into a struggle between the US National Security Council and the Pentagon on one side and the State Department on the other. There is a wide gap between “hawks”, mainly coming from the military ranks, and “moderate” diplomats. The Middle East policy is the best example to illustrate this fact.
Obama is balancing between the two camps. He is often rebuked for lack of will power while facing rough times. He is inclined to side more often with those who call for a tougher stand. The President seems to be unaware of the fact that by taking the decision to send SOF to Syria without consulting the State Department he puts the State Secretary into an awkward position and undermines the US international standing. The decision to deploy 50 special operations troops to Syria provides one more reason to doubt the US readiness to really change the situation.
The precedent is important. The decision to deploy SOF is not based on the request of Syria’s legal government, or a corresponding resolution of the United Nations Security Council. Actually, it’s an act of aggression. The presence of US ground forces may provoke further escalation, no matter what initial intention was. Obama deviates from his own statements. The President has sworn there will be no boots on the ground in Syria.
Many experts are inclined to explain this behavior by the pressure exerted by the military, in particular Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The General has already called on the President to take a tougher stance on Moscow regarding its activities in Syria. During the nomination hearings in Congress this summer he defined his attitude towards Russia saying it posed the greatest threat to US security. “If you want to talk about a nation that could pose an existential threat to the United States, I'd have to point to Russia," Dunford said at his Senate confirmation hearing to succeed Army Gen. Martin Dempsey as the next Joint Chiefs Chairman and top military advisor to President Obama.
The dubious decision to send SOF to Syria has already proven to be fraught with negative implications. For instance, Turkey slammed this step because the Special Operations Forces are to be deployed on the territory under Syrian Kurds’ control.
Those who surmised that the decision was an attempt to influence the Vienna conference, or even undermine the negotiation process, had reason. They asked Kerry about it. There have been signs recently that the Obama’s advisors continue to insist that the Bashar Assad’s resignation is a prerequisite for stabilization in Syria. They still go on saying that some viable democratic opposition exists in the country while the threat of ISIS is overblown, etc. It should be noted that Kerry actually agreed with Russia’s arguments about the right of Syrian people to choose their leaders. It was mirrored in the final declaration of Vienna meeting. Looks like the State Department knows better what the real situation in the region is like. It realizes that stubborn insistence on Assad’s resignation may lead to deplorable results like it was in the cases of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.
The partition on the Middle East policy within the ranks of US top officials are fraught with new surprises. The military is not the only force to influence President Obama. The National Security Council also competes with the State Department for the President’s ear. Normally, those who are responsible for foreign policy in the National Security Council come from the ranks of State Department officials who distinguish themselves as “tough fighters for national interests”. There are some exceptions to the rule, for instance, Michael McFaul, former US ambassador to the Russian Federation, a rare case when somebody with academic background comes to work for the State Department. They believe to belong to the “presidential team’. It makes them look down on former colleagues trying to put them into subordinate position. The State Department pays back with endless bickering, even in halcyon days. In turbulent times, like the ones we face today, the differences come to the surface. Off and on, the divisions produce fierce controversies.
It’s not just about some isolated steps taken by the United States but also about implementation of its Middle East policy. In 2011 the US adopted Political and Economic Reform in the Middle East and North Africa (presidential policy directive – PPD 13) that gave rise to the Arab Spring. This policy is questioned now. Somebody must be held responsible for its failure. Somehow the authors of the document keep away from limelight. Its provisions are being implemented by inertia. Some of those who worked on the directive try to shift the blame on “failed doers” and “bad patriots”.
Take Elliott Abrams, a founding father of neo-conservative movement that influenced many decisions leading to tragic adventures of recent years. In 1985 he gained notoriety for his involvement in controversial Iran-Contra affair. In 1991 he was sentenced for unlawfully withholding information from Congress during the Iran-Contra affair investigation. However, he was pardoned by President George H. W. Bush in 1992. In 2002—2005 Elliott Abrams served as National Security Council Director for Democracy, Human Rights and International Operations. The Council was headed by Condoleezza Rice those days. He was one of ardent advocates of US intervention in Iraq (2003). The Observer claimed that Abrams had advance knowledge of, and "gave a nod to," the Venezuelan coup attempt of 2002 against Hugo Chavez.
Abrams served as Deputy National Security Advisor for Global Democracy Strategy (February 2005—January 2009) responsible for the Middle East policy. He was the one to work out the draft of a total Middle East “democratization
Dennis B. Ross, another neo conservative, brought what Abrams started to completion summing up his ideas in the PPD-13 in the capacity of a Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for the Central Region, with overall responsibility for the region. The Central Region includes the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Pakistan and South Asia. In November 2011, Ross left the National Security Council just in time. Back then it became clear that the policy had hit snags on the way.
Before that (in July 2011) Daniel B. "Dan" Shapiro, another co-author of the Middle East policy, left his job at the National Security Council to become the US ambassador to Israel. Perhaps the three understood what they had done and rushed to leave the scene.
The baton was picked up by Susan Rice, the National Security Advisor since July 1, 2013. It shows how blur is the difference between the Democrats, the advocates of liberal interventions, and republican neocons. According to the Washington Post, three ladies – Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice and Samantha Power – share the main responsibility for persuading President Obama to bomb Libya, despite the fact that Defense Secretary Robert Gates opposed the operation.
Susan Rice supported the program of the Middle East “democratization
Probably, John Kerry realizes that the policy is doomed. He seems to be ready to rectify it. It can be explained. He took office on February 1, 2013. Unlike Hillary Clinton, his predecessor, he is not responsible for launching the Arab Spring that has brought about so much trouble. He can mitigate some of the implications. At that, it’s worth to note that the State Department has just started looking for a way out of the quagmire the United States got mired in thanks to the Obama’s Middle East policy, no matter he has diligently taken part in its implementation, even if not eager to do it.
Actually, Kerry is trying to save the image, or, to put it more precisely, whatever is left of it, of the administration, including Obama himself while many of those he is trying to rescue are fiercely impeding the process. Perhaps, they have become prisoners of their own dogmas and are afraid to become involved in investigations similar to those of Iran-Contra affair. Looks like the Middle East policy will stay prominently on the agenda of public discourse as the 2016 presidential campaign kicks into full gear, especially if Donald Trump will get the Republican nomination to face off against Hillary Clinton as the candidate of the Democrats. He can fend off all the rebukes regarding his inexperience in foreign policy by pointing out the “deeds” his rival has committed being responsible for foreign policy, including the democratization of the Middle East.