The Perils of Buying Your Own Hype

By Noah Rothman

December 24, 2015


The stunning details revealed in a Wall Street Journal report published on Wednesday expose the extent to which President Barack Obama and the coterie of flatterers with whom he has surrounded himself truly bought into their own hype.Journal reporters Nour Malas and Carol Lee revealed that the Obama administration had been conducting covert, backchannel communications with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad well after the Syrian civil war evolved from bloody semi-sectarian affair into a catastrophe of unspeakable proportions.

The report details how the Obama administration initially sought to communicate with Assad through intermediaries like Russia and Iran when the rebellions born out of the Arab Spring first drew blood. Unlike the Obama administration’s determination to avoid exacerbating Iran’s “green” rebellion in 2009 so as to preserve the president’s long-sought rapprochement with the mullahs, this outreach effort is understandable if not forgivable. When the rebellions in Syria evolved into street fighting and regime reprisals on civilian populations, the administration reluctantly embraced a policy of regime change – precisely the policy the president had denounced when his predecessor pursued it and which he said would be a “mistake” to seek in Libya. The administration identified Syrian military officials who were also members of the ruling but minority Alawite sect that might execute a coup and lead a transitional government. This initiative came to nothing.

When Assad began violating long-standing international norms of conduct and started deploying chemical weapons against civilians and rebel formations alike, it is reasonable to presume that Obama would cut off backchannel contacts. That the administration would maintain those contacts even after the president declared that the Assad regime must dissolve and the dictator in Damascus should “step aside” is almost unimaginable. That is, however, precisely what happened. As the Journal reporters indicated, the preservation of these contacts likely communicated conflicting signals to Assad, and allowed him to delude himself into believing that Washington still viewed him as the legitimate head of state in Syria.

This conflicted telegraphing of the White House’s intentions continued well into 2012, when Obama’s publically declared — and privately conveyed, as it happens — there would be military reprisals if his “red line” for action was violated. The administration’s aborted efforts to deliver on this pledge – strikes on Assad’s regime the administration assured nervous allies would be “unbelievably small” and “just muscular enough not to be mocked” – probably did not communicate to the Middle Eastern dictator that his days were numbered.

The report added finally that, when the administration was ultimately forced to engage overtly in the fighting in Syria, although only against terrorist groups in the country’s north and east, the administration relied on secret communications networks to coordinate with Assad. United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power allegedly notified her Syrian counterpart as to the whereabouts of U.S.-trained fighters engaged in attacks on ISIS so the regime would not mistake them for anti-government rebels. The White House also conveyed to Damascus the positions of its air assets to make sure pro-Assad anti-aircraft batteries did not targeted them. The legitimacy bestowed upon the regime in Damascus in this process undermined the president’s contention that “the future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way,” well before Secretary of State John Kerry abandoned that position just two weeks ago.

If it ended there, this would merely be a story of incompetence and indecision leading to a contradictory and self-defeating approach to a foreign crisis. But a revealing quote from an unnamed administration official in the Journal’s dispatch exposes the depth of the hubris and solipsism that led the White House down this meandering path. In an effort to explain the logic in the administration’s contradictory approach to communicating with Assad’s regime, this official clarified that their contacts were limited to narrow issues of immediate strategic importance. “It’s not like Cuba or Iran, where we thought that we would essentially, in a secret bilateral negotiation, resolve the issue,” the senior U.S. official said.

The fact that anyone in this administration still truly believes that “secret bilateral” negotiations have resolved much of anything in regard to the White House’s pursuit of thaws with the regimes in Tehran and Havana boggles the mind.

The White House has inked a rickety deal with Iran over its nuclear program that no one is certain will survive the Obama presidency. Those negotiations left unresolved sticky matters like the regime’s continued imprisonment of American nationals on trumped-up charges. Despite the IAEA’s imprimatur, the United Nations’ atomic energy agency revealed that Tehran had worked on an illicit nuclear program as recently as 2012, and there is no reason to believe that it cannot start it up again at a time of its choosing or that such a violation would be immediately perceptible to international regulators. The Islamic Republic has since violated U.N. resolutions by testing missiles capable of serving as nuclear delivery vehicles, rendering the sanctions relief the administration plans to gift to Tehran an act of supplication. Iran has actively worked against the interests of U.S. allies in the region, even as it serves as a partner of convenience in the Iraq this White House abandoned to competing sectarian interests. If that’s resolution, we should be thankful for stalemate.

Further, the idea that outstanding conflicts with Cuba have or even could be resolved over a cordial phone call between Barack Obama and Raul Castro is laughable. The communist island nation continues to harbor fugitives from American justice. Americans have secured judgments against Havana after property was seized by the Marxist government – from residential homes to sprawling industries – and those individuals and their heirs seek restitution. Even as travel relations are relaxed, the Cuban Adjustment Act granting asylum-seekers from that nation access to an expedited resettlement process remains in place. For its part, the Cuban government has accused the United States of “aggression” and economic strangulation, and is seeking reparations in the form of $181 billion. Even as Secretary Kerry was on site to see the American flag fly again over the U.S. embassy in Cuba, the country’s foreign minister demanded “compensation for the human and economic damage it caused over the decades.” Talks to begin resolution of these outstanding issues only commenced this month, and they are unlikely to be fully resolved before the next president takes office.

Like its Iran and Cuba policy, the administration’s folly in Syria seems to have been anchored in an unflappable faith in its own competency and the offhand dismissal of the fact that competing interests have a way of complicating mutually acceptable conflict resolution. The White House seems to have been enthralled by the fantasy that it could imagineer diplomatic victories. It became infatuated with the prospect of its celebration by a grateful world and downplayed the arduous and thankless process of striking an enduring resolution secured only through mutual sacrifice and compromise. It would be wrong to call this approach to foreign affairs directionless. It is based in a strategy, of sorts. It is, however, a strategy founded in faith. Faith in the power of the president’s personality; faith in the integrity of its historically duplicitous counterparts; faith in the righteousness of the carrot over the compelling nature of the stick. Hopefully, this is a view of geopolitics that the American people will recognize as having failed spectacularly when they head to the polls in November.