war on the rocks

Speaking Nonsense to Power: Misadventures in Dissent Over Syria

June 24, 2016

Anyone with a conscience is frustrated and saddened by the ongoing tragedy in Syria. Five years of civil war have caused more than 400,000 deaths, created millions of refugees, and given rise to extremism and regional instability. The 51 mid-level officers at the State Department who wrote a “dissent cable” advocating the use of force feel this frustration more acutely than most. One can understand and respect their despair. I was deeply impressed, when I worked at the State Department, by how much State Department officials cared about the Syrian people and how tirelessly they worked to improve the situation in Syria.

But, alas, caring is not a plan and despair is not a strategy.

As Vice President Biden has noted, the dissent cable replays a thousand debates within the Obama administration since 2011 on whether and how to deploy U.S. force in Syria. There was never a shortage of consideration of such options, never a lack of recommendations or of fairly detailed plans for no-fly zones, targeted strikes, or other military options. I personally spent several wasted months of my life annoying the Department of Defense and the National Security Council staff with half-baked ideas for cleverly calibrated uses of force. In the end, these and similar ideas were rejected by President Obama, not because he didn’t hear them, but because they made little sense.

The fundamental problem was that none of these ideas ever contained a remotely believable description of how a forceful U.S. intervention might advance U.S. interests or even stabilize Syria. Of course, war always contains risks and there are never guarantees. But you still need a credible theory of victory that at least describes how you intend to satisfy your objectives.

In the case of Syria, the core of the theory of victory has always been that increased pressure on Assad will make him more amenable to a negotiated solution. As the dissent cable argues in a way that must be depressingly familiar to President Obama:

Shifting the tide of the conflict against the regime will increase the chances for peace by sending a clear signal to the regime and its backers that there will not be a military solution to the conflict.

There are a couple of big problems with this approach.

First, the Assad regime’s external supporters, principally the Russians and Iranians, have roughly the same idea about negotiating from a position of strength. The United States and its regional allies have intervened and escalated in Syria many times since 2011, even if they have not taken the more forceful measures advocated in the cable. The Iranians and Russians always responded in kind with more support to the Assad regime. This includes the 2015 Russian intervention, which stemmed from a fear that the end of Assad’s regime was near. The end result of these combined efforts at negotiating from strength has been an endless cycle of escalation and war.

Frankly, it is a bit bizarre to seek to end bombing by bombing more. And indeed, history suggests it rarely succeeds when the enemy has external supporters.

Second, there is little belief that Assad will ever accept a negotiated solution that requires him to step down as the Syrian opposition demands. This has long been the U.S. government’s own assessment, even at moments when Assad’s military fortunes were at a low ebb. As Jeffrey White, a former long-time DIA Middle East Analyst put it, “[t]here will not be any negotiations. He will go down fighting.” Assad has said publicly that he intends to die in Syria. He has never given any indication that we should not take him at his word.

Assad’s determination to win or die, combined with Russian and Iranian resolve to help him achieve at least one of those goals rather than accept U.S.-sponsored regime change, means that U.S. military intervention would eventually need to turn into a full-scale war for regime change (or abandon the effort and admit failure.) That is a war that Obama, along with much of the United States, does not want to fight.

One can understand why. Even victory in such a brutal war might not be all that effective in securing U.S. goals. As the situations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya demonstrate, even if the United States succeeded in uprooting the Assad regime, it would likely only unleash further chaos and suffering on Syria. It would also likely empower Islamist extremists who are basically all that remain of the Syrian opposition. In sum, the United States would be risking war with a nuclear-armed Russia in order to support al-Qaeda.

In short, the measures proposed in this cable add up to a policy that has not been fully thought through — as Secretary of State John Kerry apparently told the dissenters. It is not likely to change U.S. policy in Syria.

Why doesn’t the President listen to the State Department?

But regardless of whether it is right or wrong, the dissent channel cable does give some insight into how foreign policy is made in Washington today. Various retired diplomats have been complaining that the State Department is excluded from foreign policymaking and that foreign policy is too centralized at the White House. Here, for better or for worse, we have an excellent example of why that is the case.

It is an extraordinary thing, after all, for 51 officials to get together and write a formal dissent, particularly given that they must have known the cable would leak and probably intended it to do so. Diplomats are entitled to opinions and to express them internally — indeed that is their job. But these arguments clearly have been heard — and rejected — by the president.

In that case, serving diplomats are not entitled to organize public campaigns when they are not listened to and seek to embarrass their boss into changing his policy. If the military had done this (which it occasionally does), we would rightly be talking about a crisis in civil-military relations and looking to fire a general or two for the sake of preserving the republic.

The problem is not disagreement. It is normal for the White House and the State Department to disagree on foreign policy.  Institutionally, the State Department tends to view any domestic political consideration in foreign policy as grubby or even immoral. In contrast, presidents legitimately worry more about public opinion and their own standing, and seek to integrate domestic political considerations into foreign policy. In part for this reason, presidents have frequently found themselves at odds with the State Department. There is nothing wrong with this — indeed the tension is healthy for making policy.

But in a media-saturated age, the tendency for these disagreements to leak out into the public sphere, and subsequently embarrass the president, has made this situation politically intolerable. Every leak and every demonstration that the civil servants who populate the State Department either don’t understand or don’t care about the president’s political interests just reinforces his distrust. Recent presidents, going back at least to Nixon, have responded to this dynamic by beefing up the White House foreign policy staff and seeking to exclude the State Department from policymaking as much as possible.

This is clearly frustrating for State Department officials who feel that America has a disastrous Syria policy. But they should understand that this particular response only earns them more enmity from their political masters and will only encourage this and future presidents to exclude them more from the levers of power.


Jeremy Shapiro is Director of Research at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.  He served in the State Department from 2009-2013.