Belmont Club

The Random Walk

The administration has announced another secret plan to keep the world safe from Syrian WMDs. The Los Angeles Times says “the Pentagon has made contingency plans to send small teams of special operations troops into Syria if the White House decides it needs to secure chemical weapons depots now controlled by security forces loyal to President Bashar Assad, senior U.S. officials said.”

President Obama warned this week that any effort by Assad to move or use his arsenal of chemical munitions in the country’s conflict would cross a “red line,” implying it could prompt swift U.S. intervention. …

Securing the sites would probably involve stealthy raids by special operations teams trained to handle such weapons, and precision airstrikes to incinerate the chemicals without dispersing them in the air, the officials said. U.S. satellites and drone aircraft already maintain partial surveillance of the sites.

This is yet another one of several secret announcements. The others include a secret program to support the Syrian rebels from a secret base inside Turkey.

Just into whose hands these weapons might fall was highlighted in a Washington Post article which described the emergence of al-Qaeda affiliated groups at the forefront of the anti-Assad campaign. “A shadowy jihadist organization that first surfaced on the Internet to assert responsibility for suicide bombings in Aleppo and Damascus has stepped out of the shadows and onto the front lines of the war for Syria’s cities.”

Here in Aleppo, the al-Nusra Front for the Protection of the People of the Levant, widely known as the Jabhat al-Nusra, is fielding scores of fighters, some of them foreigners, in the battle for control of Syria’s commercial capital, a key prize in the bitter war of attrition being waged across the country.

The group, suspected of affiliations to al-Qaeda, says it is also fighting in other locations, including the cities of Homs and Idlib and the suburbs of the capital, Damascus. Its growing role has prompted concerns that the 17-month-old uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is becoming radicalized as the bloodshed soars. …

Jabhat al-Nusra’s growing visibility on the streets of Syrian cities highlights one of the reasons the United States and its allies have been reluctant to arm Syrian rebels even as Obama administration officials repeatedly insist that Assad must go. Fears are widespread among Western governments that weapons sent to the rebels could wind up in the hands of extremists and be turned against their benefactors in a region already taut with sectarian and geopolitical rivalries.

The US is as worried the weapons might fall into the rebel’s hands as it fears the falling out of Assad’s hands. Two New York Times journalists who were allowed to accompany the rebels describe their experiences in Aleppo. “As they have grown in numbers and strength, they have organized into a force that mixes paramilitary discipline, civilian policing, Islamic law and the harsh demands of necessity with battlefield coldness and outright cunning. They have informants and spies, and eavesdrop on the government’s military radios while trying to form a nascent government themselves in the territory under their control.”

Such vignettes may shed a little more light on the cast of characters, but these snippets hardly constitute a roadmap for action. The administration seems just as anxious to overthrow Assad as in letting the Syrian rebels win. It worries just as much about helping the Syrian rebels succeed as avoiding the impression they are helping the Syrian rebels succeed.

Just how muddled the public case has become can be seen by juxtaposing the administrations’s efforts to “lead from behind” — or at least from the shadows — to the eagerness of others to get in on the act. A number of journalists who had taken part in the Libyan uprising have now launched a site titled project Kickstarter. The tagline is “this is your chance to become part of the Arab Spring”.

Have you wanted to do something to help the Arab Spring but weren’t sure how? This is your chance.

In September, 2012 two famous freedom fighters from the Libyan revolution, American Matthew VanDyke and Libyan Masood Bwisir, will travel together to Syria and join the rebels on the front line against the dictator Bashar al-Assad.

The mission? Make a groundbreaking and unique documentary film about the Syrian revolution and the Arab Spring that will be released on the internet for free to a potential audience of millions (similar to the method used to distribute the film Kony 2012).

The film will be coupled with a massive public relations campaign to promote the film, and by doing so also focus the world’s attention on the struggle for freedom in Syria.

The Arab Spring has become a kind of traveling show. This month Libya, next month Damascus. It even sounds like one. Of the the volunteer efforts  Wired says “all they need is $19,500 by Wednesday. They’re about $4,000 short.  VanDyke and Bwisir are hoping Americans care enough about the Arab Spring to help raise awareness for the Syrian rebels and inspire “’others around the world to protest for their freedom as well.'” Well Americans might ‘care enough’ if they knew what this is all about. Wired as an afterthought considers the possible dangers of private American citizens raising funds for wars in other countries:

All this raises an interesting question for Kickstarter’s future. Even if the only thing VanDyke and Bwisir wield is a camera and an acoustic guitar, perhaps the next project will explicitly seek to fund an uprising. And that will raise thorny legal and policy questions about funding extremism, as there’s an uncomfortable terrorist element (of unknown size) glomming on to the anti-Assad uprising. The Patriot Act and other post-9/11 legislation gives the government wide latitude to attack the avenues of suspected terrorist finance. At what point does it start looking at Kickstarter?

At what point does the US governmentlook at project Kickstarter? Maybe when it starts looking at its own policy, or rather the lack of it. How can the administration accuse private Americans of supporting ‘terrorists’ — even if they are — when America’s own allies and agencies are more less helping the same cast of characters with taxpayer money?

In the past you knew who the good and bad guys were. Now you are left to guess for yourself.  “Leading from behind” has effectively become the practice of having no definite policy; it is the custom of pursuing ends in private that are denied in public or so obscured that no one knows what it officially is.

Nor is it helped by the comic-opera manner in which whatever policy actually exists is prosecuted. The announcement of secret programs on the front pages of newspapers, prosecuted from secret command headquarters in Turkey near a US military base and the broadcast of intentions to secretly swoop down and take control of Syrian WMDS — where did they come from by the way? — are the stuff of Get Smart.

Not to be outdone by President Obama, or perhaps unable to resist farce themselves, the Russians have announced the results of their own secret conference with the Syrian government. The result of the confidential talks are that President Obama has nothing to worry about.

Russia believes Syria has no intention of using its chemical weapons and is able to safeguard them, the Russian newspaper Kommersant reported on Wednesday, citing a unidentified Foreign Ministry official.

The report seemed aimed to reassure the West that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will not use chemical weapons against rebels after U.S. President Barack Obama threatened “enormous consequences” if Damascus even moved them in a menacing way.

A “confidential dialogue” with the Syrian government on the security of the arsenal has convinced Russia that “the Syrian authorities do not intend to use these weapons and are capable of keeping them under control themselves,” Kommersant reported.

But how,one might ask, are the Assad boys going to keep control of the weapons once the regime is toppled? The very success of the administration policy to topple Assad must lead to the exact thing that they fear. For once the regime collapses then by definition the WMDs are outside of a command and control that no longer exists. The only way in which current administration policy makes any sense is that they are playing a double game. By supporting the rebels they hope to frighten the Russians and the Assads into surrendering to them, calculating that in an endgame where Assad has the choice of capitulating to the al-Qaeda backed rebels or agreeing to Hillary’s terms they will choose the pantsuit over the burka.

But this is all guesswork. The administration’s gyrations run the risk of being too clever by half. Charles Krauthammer, writing in the Washington Post, cites Anthony Cordesmann’s proposal that the US finally explain its policy with regard to Iran. Iran, like Syria, is swimming in the soup of ‘smart diplomacy’. Cordesman urged the administration to describe the “clear US red lines”, to “make it clear that Iran has no successful options” and give “Iran a face-saving way out”. In other words he was suggesting that the administration explain to friend and foe alike just where it stood and what it was prepared to do.

What a quaint suggestion. In former times the name for this type of clarity was called just plain leading. But today, it has been replaced by the practice of “leading from behind” where it is hard to say what the administration really wants, how far it is prepared to go and just what the bottom line on anything was. Ironically this confusion may be method — a deliberate strategy to avoid any policy failure by the simple expedient of having no policy to begin with.

That way, whatever happens, the President can disassociate himself from any debacle. Like his assertion that somebody else in his campaign falsely called Governor Romney a felon he can always deny approval of the failed scheme. In mid-July of 2012 Mark Lander wrote an article in the New York Times which suggested that some advisers saw foreign policy largely as an extension of the campaign. The main task in the coming months was to do nothing definite.

With the White House in campaign mode nearly 24/7, many of the administration’s biggest foreign policy initiatives have been pushed to the back burner until after the election. From Syria and Iran to nuclear arms reductions and peace talks with the Taliban, the administration is mostly playing for time, trying to avoid decisions that could land the president in trouble or be exploited by his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney.

But NYT was quick to remind the reader that in the cynical world of Washington, foreign policy is always just a prop to get the votes and besides the Republicans are forcing him to do it by not going along with whatever he isn’t announcing.

Mr. Obama himself acknowledged in March how the election had narrowed his options when he told Dmitri A. Medvedev, then Russia’s president — in a private exchange picked up by an open microphone — that he would have more flexibility after November to deal with Russian concerns over the American missile defense system.

The attempt to subordinate foreign policy to domestic politics is a quadrennial phenomenon, but “the lengthening of the political season, combined with the president’s understandable desire to be re-elected, has meant a longer distraction than in previous elections,” said Martin S. Indyk, director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution.

The White House’s policy, Mr. Indyk said, can be summed up as “no wars, no engagement in risky business abroad that can cost votes with key constituencies at home, no presidential involvement unless there’s an urgent requirement.”

With this perspective the natural order of the universe emerges. To the question are the Syrian WMDs safe? Is there an Iranian nuclear threat? Are the Syrian rebels really al-Qaeda in disguise? Is the State Department really anti-Assad or just scaring him so that he comes to daddy the apparent answer is: who knows? Even, who cares? The real concern has always been been elsewhere and much closer to home.


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