Speaking Nonsense to Power: Misadventures in Dissent Over Syria

June 24, 2016

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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. 

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10 thoughts on “Speaking Nonsense to Power: Misadventures in Dissent Over Syria

  1. In February 2016, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights arbitrarily changed the number of people killed from the documented 270,000 to 370,000. Prior to this questionable increase in total deaths set by the Syrian Observatory, the recorded deaths showed that the majority of killed have been combatants, and they mostly loyalist forces. These deaths included non-Syrian guerrillas that had crossed Turkish and Iraqi borders to fight in the Islamic war against the Syrian government. Civilians have been killed by government troops, but rebels, Islamists foreign fighters, the US and its Middle Eastern and NATO allies have also killed non-combatants as well.
    The real failure lies with our intelligence agency and State Department “experts” that advocated aiding and abetting the rebellion thinking it would remove Bashar al Asad. Their vision of a quick victory turned from just being mistaken into a notable fiasco. By weakening the central government they failed to envision the rebirth of al Qaeda, the worldwide appeal to jihadism and the onset of ISIS.
    Every civil war in history has been a savage one. Technology has changed the degree of violence perpetrated, but internal conflicts have always entailed loss of civilian life and destruction of property. In America’s War of the Southern Rebellion, President Lincoln would today have been charged with crimes against humanity as he was commander in chief as Grant laid siege to the city of Memphis, or Sherman’s “march to the sea” and the destruction of Richmond.
    Syria’s civil war would have been a lot less costly if outside powers had not turned that nation into a battleground between Iran and Saudi Arabia. An increase in America’s military involvement would not achieve the goals envisioned by midlevel bureaucrats, but would only intensify the death and devastation, let alone risk a major confrontation with Russia.

  2. Foreign policy should be made in a collaboration between the relevant agencies (State, Defense, and others) with the White House/NSC serving to coordinate rather than shape the options presented to the President. This hasn’t seemed to be the process used by the Obama Administration, and it has shown.

    Military action was never a good option in Syria, but I don’t think the White House checked with Defense until after drawing the “red line,” so that ultimatum was issued without any support. Since then, military action has become a worse and worse option, but I don’t think that Defense is being asked to articulate why to departments like State. That leads to bureaucratic squabbles of turf by uninformed actors; wasting the salaries of countless government employees.

  3. The suggestion of military action against Assad is blind arrogance that will hurt us in the Middle East or the fields of Eastern Europe.

    Assad and Russia have a mutual defense pact just like members of NATO. They have had it for a long time.

    If we strike Assad we risk direct confrontation with Russia. And make no bones about it militarily speaking they can do damage. From military tech to experience they can match and even over match us in certain theaters.

    Putin for sure is not a good ally. If he were there would be no foreigners including NATO in Syria save for Iran and Hezbollah.

    Put Putin has been talked to by the hardliners. The true Russian Soviets. And when his popularity now at 80% falls … and it will … they will take the country as has been Russian history. And they will militarily confront our arrogance.

    For those who point to their economy I can only say that they have suffered far worse deprivation and spent more and more on their military.

    Under an ultra nationalist truly afraid of NATO and disdainful of the Wolfowitz Doctrine they will do it again.

    And we will see how high a country can get over victories in Iraq. And how fast expensive hardware — the product of our corrupt military industrial complex — will be shot down: F-35 and F-22 I am talking about you.

  4. I agree with Mr. Shapiro. The only thing I would add is that the US DoS appears to care about the views, feelings and rights of only one community in Syria.Reference

  5. Very good article, Jeremy, and agree entirely on the notion of feasible options to pressure Assad to leave being nonsense.

    It’s not only mid-level FSOs, though. The very likely next SECDEF, Michelle Flournoy of CNAS, has a new white paper out that goes much _farther_ than the ‘dissent cable’. Like the diplomats the CNAS team argue for bombing Syrian regime targets, and their analysis of the Russia angle is roughly this:

    1. Putin is not very serious about Syria and his #1 goal is to avoid US involvement — just look how Putin gave in to US pressure and forced Assad to cave when the US threatened airstrikes in Sept 2013!
    2. The US could avoid any hits on Russian forces in Syria because of our precision and ISR and general awesomeness. (and surely the Russians wouldn’t move around their forces to co-locate them with likely Syrian targets of US strikes, right?)
    3. The U.S. could manage any any incidents with Russia via effective strategic communication (like what, “That was not an F-18 that struck you. You don’t need to see my ID. Move along”)
    4. The US has global escalation dominance over Russia, so in any case they would be deterred from military responses to US strikes in Syria.


    If Flournoy agrees with all the above — she is chair of the overall project, not one of the direct authors — that is a really scary prospect in a SECDEF….

  6. How about starting with a recognition and admission (however belated) that the real “poorly thought through” policy decision of 2011 respecting Assad and Syria was the precipitous withdrawal from Iraq. How much “dissent” did this State Department register then? How many thousand debates did Biden et al. engage in at that point? How much discussion with the military and Defense leaders then? The real measure of wasted lives, resources, opportunities, advantageous position and leverage has to start there.
    The importance of winning the peace after winning the war seems a concept beyond the grasp of this administration. It begs the question of their real capacity for either. Why trust them to lead us or anyone else from behind into another backward entry into Middle East conflict?
    Just for the sake of furthering the discussion, though– for anyone serious about “doing something”– let me suggest a better point of entry and position for real leverage, with regard to Syria and Assad, ISIS, Russia, and Iran. How about establishing, with agreement and cooperation of the Kurds, a base of operations of, say, 60,000? troops in the NW of the Kurdish region of northern Iraq.

  7. There is no alternative to Assad in Syria. It will be just like Iraq and Libya. Someone in the state department should be a little better understanding of politics. He could help teach the others. Or course maybe the goal is really another failed state.Reference

  8. It would also likely empower Islamist extremists who are basically all that remain of the Syrian opposition.

    From the start. the violent opposition was dominated by the military wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamist extremists.