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Michael Weiss

An unbelievably
small presidency

Does the White House even want its token Syrian efforts to succeed?

Supporters of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad wave a Syrian flag with Assad

Sometime in 2010, as the United States was preparing for its withdrawal from Iraq, a senior military commander was approached in a White House hallway by a senior Obama administration official. The commander was deeply disturbed by what he saw as a total lack of commitment to securing the hard-won gains in a country not yet ready for a categorical American absence. Would the Sunni Awakening be put back to sleep? Would al-Qaeda return in force? Was the administration aware of Nouri al-Maliki’s true character and political tendency, not to mention the foreign country to which he was actually loyal? The administration official’s response is something that the military commander never forgot, and neither should anyone trying to understand the United States’ role in the world today. “If our policy succeeds,” the official said, “we’ll take credit for it. If it fails and Iraq descends into civil war again, we’ll just blame George W. Bush.”

 

I’ve argued before in this space that the Obama administration does not have a foreign policy of which to speak; it has a public relations policy. “Strategic communications” has taken the place of actual strategy, and what Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin refers to as “political technology” has taken the place of actual politics. The formula here is quite simple because it was invented by people in their late 20s or early 30s with little real-world experience beyond applying for Rhodes scholarships or crowdsourcing campaign donations. Whenever some part of the world falls to pieces, or some fresh humanitarian catastrophe ensues, the immediate response is twofold: First, the president gives a speech making him appear decisive and in command; second, all the president’s men leak stories to an accommodating press suggesting that he is indeed decisive and in command and about to take necessary action. Never mind the details – those will come later. Just focus on the headlines.

 

And so the press invariably does. US policy is now changed, or adjusted – sometimes dramatically so – to incorporate new facts and fresh disasters, the newspapers tell us.  The New York Times dutifully praises this theatre of leadership in its editorial page, mistaking moral cretinism for “caution” and cowardice for “pragmatism.” Then weeks, if not months, go by and people forget about the part of the world falling to pieces or the humanitarian catastrophe because something else has grabbed their attention. But then, quietly, the true original purpose behind the strategic communications-concocted policy is laid bare in a lead-burying item tucked away in the middle section of a national newspaper.

 

In his West Point speech last May, the president announced that he was “calling on Congress to support a new counterterrorism partnerships fund of up to $5 billion,” to help allied countries and pro-American proxies combat jihadism in Yemen, Libya and Syria, which was now a “critical focus” of this subsidy. “I will work with Congress to ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists and brutal dictators,” he said, which some took to mean that the Defense Department taking over the training of rebels from the CIA would mean a significant investment in creating a Free Syrian Army that was both anti-Assad and anti-jihadist. It was soon thereafter established that of the proposed $5 billion, only $500 million – 10% – would be spent on the Syria crisis, which is by far the worst of all those Obama tallied off. A National Security Council spokesperson tried his or her best to elaborate that this money would “help defend the Syrian people, stabilize areas under opposition control, facilitate the provision of essential services, counter terrorist threats, and promote conditions for a negotiated settlement.” 

 

Help, stabilize, facilitate, counter and promote are words that mean nothing to most human beings, for good reason. But they meant a great deal to Fareed Zakaria, or perhaps his research assistant. In the course of arguing that the Assad regime had been a historical foe of radical Islamists and jihadists – such as the ones it dispatched into Iraq to kill American servicemen, or the ones it has armed and subvented in Lebanon and Gaza – this most correct of correct-thinking pundits pronounced that Obama was “likely to throw fuel onto a raging fire” by adopting such a bold new military program. Alas, this was because Obama had finally succumbed to the “general consensus” on Syria. (Zakaria seems to believe that a consensus can be anything other than general. He will one day make an excellent strategic communicator for some lucky White House.)

 

But his panic was unjustified, as was obvious back at West Point, where gobbledygook masqueraded as a volte-face. The Wall Street Journal reported on July 16 that Obama’s seemingly large investment is already subject to diminishing returns, with sentences that read as if they were out of Evelyn Waugh’s Black Mischief: “Preliminary military estimates, presented by officials to key congressional committees in closed-door briefings last week, call for training a 2,300-man force – less than the size of a single brigade – over an 18-month period that probably won’t begin until next year, according to officials.” 

 

In other words, half a billion dollars is being spent to possibly kinda make soldiers out of a contingent of a little more than 12% of the Islamic State’s estimated total fighting force. And it’s going to take a year and a half just to do that. The Pentagon explained that this absurd holdup – in 18 months, there may be no Syrian opposition left to train or arm – was due to the “vetting issue.” Here again comes a perennial US excuse, which former Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford wasted little time debunking once he lapsed into official retirement. Three years into the war, and the United States has trouble finding 2,000 credible proxies. Meanwhile, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, which is running four different countries all at once in the midst of international sanctions, has no trouble finding 150,000 militiamen of its own to wage counterinsurgency operations in Syria and Iraq under the guise of “protecting Shia shrines.”

 

There are also new hiccups for rebel boot camp that had not existed before. Jordan allowed the CIA to train rebels on its soil for two years (how were they vetted? do they have friends they can refer to other agencies in the US government?), but now says it doesn’t want the Pentagon to train rebels on its soil. This is an objection that no one in the Obama administration appears to have anticipated, which is implausible given the heavy presence of the CIA on Jordanian soil. So now location has become yet another impediment to seeing Obama’s grand vision for Syria realized.

 

Most revealing, however, is what one defense official told the Journal about the lack of interest or support for this policy at the very top: “I get the sense no one really wants to do it.” How right he is.

 

Mohammed al-Ghanem, the government relations director at the Syrian American Council, told al-Arabiya’s Joyce Karam that the White House is not “lobbying aggressively” for Congress to accept the Syria provision in the 2015 Defense Appropriations Act, which cleared the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee this week. The administration is “almost setting itself up for failure,” Ghanem said, although he might have added that it is doing so consciously because it does not want to succeed. This is the built-in trapdoor to all Obama policymaking. Executive torpor and lack of preparation in selling an executive-made policy ensures that failure becomes somebody else’s problem – George W. Bush’s, or a shitty website provider, or the House and Senate.

 

Recall how the administration tried, not very convincingly, to convince Congress to authorize the president to wage “unbelievably small” airstrikes on the Assad regime after its deployment of sarin gas in Damascus last summer, which exceeded all the other “small-scale” chemical weapons attacks that the regime had already perpetrated. The administration deflected or parried arguments from legislators which it had invented to justify not attacking the Assad regime. Both the chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff and the defense secretary looked on that occasion like two dogs that had been put through a car wash. John Kerry, who had compared Assad to Hitler one week, then had to praise him as cooperative in the early stages of chemical disarmament the next.

 

I asked Hadi al-Bahra, the newly-elected president of the Syrian Opposition Council, what he thought of the fine print of the administration’s already-faltering plan to rescue Syria. “The delay in taking any decisions or pushing laws or budgets into Congress without also pushing for its success – it will not serve any purpose that will advance any change on the ground,” he told me from Istanbul. “We have painted for the administration the full picture of the situation in Syria now, and we have explained the regional risks that we will face if we don't take a strong stand to deal with it responsibly.” 

 

Is Bahra surprised that attempts to “contain” this nightmare have instead yielded a caliphate? “The regime is an incubator for terrorist organizations. From the start of the revolution the regime created this scenario, announced it, and now is executing it under the eyes of the international community. And we don’t see the right reaction. We have told the administration that [the Islamic State] is working right under the noses of the Iranian and Syrian regimes. But they’re not doing the right thing to combat that.”

 

Except that they are, according to them. A speech was given, headlines were written, quotes were manufactured, columns were debated, and Syrians were duped: all in a day’s work for strategic communications and an unbelievably small presidency.

 

 

Painting into a corner. (AFP Photo/Jewel Samad)

If our policy succeeds, we’ll take credit for it. If it fails and Iraq descends into civil war again, we’ll just blame George W. Bush.”

  • commenter8

    Weiss is absolutely right. Obama just doesn't care about foreign policy.

    July 22, 2014

  • Abu al-Dinar

    Dear Mr. Weiss & Editors, After strongly enjoying this article and the accuracy behind Mr. Weiss's analysis, I was strong shocked to find an extremely glaring error that any two-bit troll commenter could have caught. I believe you forgot to include "*Mic Drop*" at the conclusion of this article. Yours truly, A fond admirer

    July 20, 2014

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    It is more incumbent upon the European Union to deal with the world's problems than the United States. Three of the veto-holding powers on the security council are Europeans, most notably the haughty United Kingdom. I think the British cesspool union should shoulder the world's problems because most of these problems are residuals of the Empire where the sun no longer shines, just as that unnameable part of the human anatomy. Michael Weiss, this all-knowing prophet of what-to-do in every dispute around the globe is, after all, a subject of the aging queen. More importantly, he is the son of the great moral human repository that the Jewish people claim to be.

    July 19, 2014