Belmont Club

Hof's Mea Culpa

Readers may wish to check out Fred Hof’s article titled “I Got Syria So Wrong” at Politico, which is best left to speak for itself.  It is one part mea culpa, one part indictment and one part prophecy.  Hof’s admits that he never understood how things were going down in Syria and tries to understand why.  Most telling is the admission his biggest error was to be fool enough to think the administration was serious in the way we assume high public officials are serious.  Hof’s mistake was to be so naive as to think it impossible that any one could be so cynical as to use the death and misery perhaps millions as a mere public relations prop.

Now and then I am asked if I had predicted, way back in March 2011 when violence in Syria began, that within a few years a quarter-million people would be dead, half the population homeless and hundreds of thousands of defenseless civilians terrorized, traumatized, tortured and starved. …

But no. It took me the better part of eighteen months to comprehend fully the scope of an unfolding humanitarian and political catastrophe. By September 2012, when I resigned my State Department post as adviser on Syrian political transition to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, I knew that Syria was plunging into an uncharted abyss—a humanitarian abomination of the first order. And I knew that the White House had little appetite for protecting civilians (beyond writing checks for refugee relief) and little interest in even devising a strategy to implement President Barack Obama’s stated desire that Syrian President Bashar Assad step aside. …

And as Syria began to descend into the hell to which Assad was leading it, I did not realize that the White House would see the problem as essentially a communications challenge: getting Obama on “the right side of history” in terms of his public pronouncements. What the United States would do to try to influence Syria’s direction never enjoyed the same policy priority as what the United States would say. …

Having failed miserably as a prophet in 2011 does not deter me from predicting the following: Obama will bequeath to his successor a problem of gargantuan dimensions if he does not change policy course now. Left to the joint ministrations of Assad and the Islamic State, Syria will continue to hemorrhage terrified, hungry and hurt human beings in all directions while terrorists from around the globe feast on the carcass of an utterly ruined state. Western Europe now reaps a whirlwind of desperate and displaced humanity it thought would be limited to Syria’s immediate neighborhood.

My failure to predict the extent of Syria’s fall was, in large measure, a failure to understand the home team. In August 2011, Barack Obama said Assad should step aside. Believing the president’s words guaranteed decisive follow-up, I told a congressional committee in December 2011 that the regime was a dead man walking. When the president issued his red-line warning, I fearlessly predicted (as a newly private citizen) that crossing the line would bring the Assad regime a debilitating body blow. I still do not understand how such a gap between word and deed could have been permitted. It is an error that transcends Syria.

Hof recoils at the finish, aghast at the realization of what he has served, whose tool he has been.  He hopes against hope that having been wrong in all else, he is likewise in error about about the character of the administration he worked for.

I want the president to change course, but I fear that Syrians—Syrians who want a civilized republic in which citizenship and consent of the governed dominate—are on their own. I’ve been so wrong so many times. One more time would be great. It would mean saving thousands of innocent lives. It would mean real support for courageous Syrian civil society activists who represent the essence of a revolution against brutality, corruption, sectarianism and unaccountability. It would mean the reclamation of American honor. It would mean preserving my near-perfect record of getting things wrong. It would be a godsend.

Unfortunately this time he has probably got it right. The “home team” wasn’t even playing for the home side.  In fact one cannot even take comfort in concluding they were working for someone else, like the conventionally evil true believers of the 20th century.  Rather, this lot were evil in a particularly 21st century way, in the manner of a spoiled child which pulls off an insect’s wings from curiosity, clinically, indifferent to its suffering;  playing the game to break the most windows, in a detached, consequenceless way.

Time and again Hof pleads: it didn’t have to be this way. Of course not. There was no reason for it to be this way at all. Yet in that phrase lies the full horror of what history has just witnessed. Some tragedies happen for an evil reason, only rarely does one happen for a tantrum.

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