An internal cable signed by more than 50 State Department officials objecting to the Obama administration’s policy on Syria is particularly worrisome, according to experts, given Hillary Clinton’s hawkish foreign policy positions and her stated plan to escalate President Barack Obama’s war in Syria if elected.
The cable itself was leaked to major news outlets, including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, both of which carried frontpage stories on its implications Friday morning.
The memo, sent through an official “dissent channel” within the State Department, includes repeated calls for “targeted military strikes” against the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad and expressions of frustration that Obama has resisted deeper military engagement amid peace talk efforts that have produced little progress over recent months.
It puts forth “moral rationale” for such calls, saying “[t]he status quo in Syria will continue to present increasingly dire, if not disastrous, humanitarian, diplomatic and terrorism-related challenges.”
The Wall Street Journal reports that such official dissent is not unusual, but that “the number of diplomats actively opposing a major White House” policy position was.
“It’s embarrassing for the administration to have so many rank-and-file members break on Syria,” a former State Department official who worked on Middle East policy told WSJ.
According to the Times, “The names on the memo are almost all midlevel officials — many of them career diplomats — who have been involved in the administration’s Syria policy over the last five years, at home or abroad. They range from a Syria desk officer in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs to a former deputy to the American ambassador in Damascus.”
Strikingly, those knowledgeable about the cable suggested it may not be directed at President Obama as much as it is directed at a future President Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee and current general election frontrunner.
As WSJ reported, “The internal cable may be an attempt to shape the foreign policy outlook of the next administration, the official familiar with the document said. President Barack Obama has balked at taking military action against Mr. Assad, while Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton has promised a more hawkish stance toward the Syrian leader.”
As numerous respondents on social media noted in their reactions to the story, the implications of the memo are more pronounced—and potentially more dangerous—when considered in the context of a hypothetical Hillary Clinton administration:
According to Phyllis Bennis, who directs the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies and spoke with Common Dreams by phone Friday morning, the diplomatic officials should be commended for highlighting the abject failures of the U.S. policies in Syria.
However, she warned there is much to be alarmed about, given the prescriptions attached to their dissent and the political context under which they were made public.
“I have no doubt that people working on the Syria desk in the State Department over these years must be incredibly frustrated, there’s no doubt about that,” Bennis said. She applauded the moral considerations offered by the officials, but said just because they recognize that the “U.S. policy has failed and is failing” it doesn’t follow “that the only alternative is military escalation.”
“Though the cable also calls for an increased diplomatic effort,” Bennis said, “they do so in the context of saying that greater military attacks will somehow bring Assad to the table. And there simply is no evidence of that—quite the contrary. The notion that the military engagement itself is what is preventing potential success for a greater diplomatic engagement is simply not taken seriously.”
Citing the Pentagon’s opposition to ramped up strikes in Syria, Bennis said the contents of the memo are not without irony. “You have the military brass recognizing largely that military escalation is not going to work [in Syria] and the so-called ‘diplomats’ are the ones calling for the military.”
As one commenter on Twitter similarly noted, “We’ve come 180° from Vietnam War, when Pentagon always wanted to bomb & State was where diplomatic doves roosted.”
In their cable, the officials insist they are not “advocating for a slippery slope that ends in a military confrontation with Russia,” but rather pushing for, according to the Times, a credible threat of military action to keep Assad in line.
However, according to Bennis, that logic is extremely problematic given that it totally “denies the reality that a confrontation with Bashar al-Assad right now is a confrontation with Russia.”
That may not have been the case six or eight months ago, Bennis explained, but given the level of Russian’s current involvement, it is certainly the case now.
“Direct bombing of Assad’s own targets is that slippery slope,” she said. “And it’s very, very slippery.”
Given the current volatile relationship between the Washington, D.C. and Moscow—noting heightened tensions amid NATO war games in Poland this week and increased saber-rattling in eastern Europe and the Baltic States—Bennis argues that further antagonizing Russia will do nothing to bring peace to the Syrian people.
“Under conditions when relations with Russia are all warm and fuzzy, you might be able to get away with this without it necessarily leading to major Cold War escalation or worse,” she said. “But these are not warm and fuzzy times with Russia. There are enormous tensions, including military tensions right on Russia’s border.”
The kind of bombings these officials are calling for is very dangerous, said Bennis, “because what they’re proposing is the kind of escalation that is certain to lead to more political confrontation with Russia and threatens the possibility that that confrontation could become more than just political.”
Like other observers, Bennis also expressed specific concerns about the cable’s implications in the context of U.S. presidential race in which neither media outlets nor voters have exerted much pressure on candidates to answer difficult questions about U.S. foreign policy, especially regarding Syria and the greater Middle East.
“These wars,” she said, “which the U.S. is waging around the world, have simply not be a feature of the election campaign from any of that candidates. And it’s time that stopped.”
“We know that current policy is failing. What would they do differently?” Bennis asked. “Hillary Clinton says she would do what President Obama is doing, but that she’d do more of it and harsher—more bombs, more regime change, and a quicker move to a no-fly zone.”
That, too, would further antagonize Russia, she said. “Nobody is challenging Hillary Clinton on what her discussion of a no-fly means vis-a-vis Russia. Does she think that [former] Secretary of Defense Gates was wrong when he said creating a no-fly zone starts with going to war? Or does she think going to war against Russia is just fine?”