Obama's Crumbling Syria Facade

By Michael Weiss

That great historian Robert Conquest once told Christopher Hitchens that it was no longer useful to distinguish between left and right in politics because “fools and knaves [I’m quoting Hitchens’ paraphrase here] of all kinds needed to be opposed and that what was really needed was a ‘United Front Against Bullshit.’”

Conquest’s lifelong quarry has been the Western intelligentsia that embraced totalitarianism, particularly Stalinism, and little about the style or substance of that quarry has changed since he took up his pen. Neo-Nazis in Europe are today joined with holy imperialists in Russia in a violent international campaign to defeat what they earnestly describe as a “fascist junta” in Ukraine – and are cheered by anti-imperialist socialists in Britain. So while ideologies and fronts may come and go (Populaire, National, Islamic), Conquest’s barricades must never be dismantled because bullshit has true staying power. It also has wider application than by the tyrannical or the fellow traveling.

Consider the following example: an American ambassador to a war-ravaged Middle Eastern country is widely known to be keeping two sets of books on what he thinks the United States can and must do about that country. In private, those who know him will attest, he understands that the president’s failure to intervene earlier has re-legitimized and emboldened a dictator, as well as that dictator’s allies, and therefore led to more death, dispossession, and carnage. But publicly, the ambassador goes well beyond apologizing for the president: he becomes an accomplice in scapegoating the victims of humanitarian catastrophe.

In March of this year, Robert Ford offered three reasons for why rescuing Syria was hopeless. The first, he said, was that the opposition to Bashar al-Assad was in a state of chauvinistic disarray. “First and foremost,” Ford told the New York Times, the rebels have “been very unsuccessful at explaining an agenda that would not threaten the communities that are the pillars of support for the regime, first and foremost the Alawite community.” (The repetition here of that wan expression “first and foremost” hinted at either pre-scripting or a nervous disposition, that of someone trying too hard.) True, Russia and Iran have helped (this was reason number two), but it was the opposition’s failure to offer up a multicultural “agenda” to the Alawites, Ford maintained, that allowed the regime (here came number three) a “certain unity and coherence, which is lacking on the opposition side.” First and foremost.

The Obama administration does not have a foreign policy. It has a public relations policy. And so perhaps it was to be expected that a senior administration official would submit that the poor quality of dissidents’ “strategic communications” was the main explanation for why a mass murderer who deployed weapons of mass destruction in a capital city was still alive, much less campaigning for “re-election.” At the time of this expert enlistment of bullshit, Fred Hof ably demonstrated how the first reason in Ford’s trio was in fact factually untrue because the Syrian opposition had more than once affirmed its vision for a pluralistic state and society in which ethnic and religious minorities would be protected. But Hof also noted how this misdiagnosis was prima facie silly. Would Alawites forming the “pillars of support” for the regime believe what a Sunni-majority opposition said they could expect in a post-Assad Syria? They wouldn’t be very good pillars if they were that easily swayed. 

Apparatchik thinking, as Conquest showed, is the easiest causeway to intellectual and moral stupidity. Still, it’s somewhat cruel to be too hard on a man just following, and trying to account for, the party line. “In fairness to Robert Ford,” Hof wrote of his former State Department colleague, “he is not yet free to speak his mind. He is still on the government payroll and is therefore required to adhere to official policy and related talking points when speaking publicly.” 

I’d pay good money to avoid ever being defended like that. But now, Robert Ford isn’t on the government payroll. Guess what’s happened?

In his first public, post-retirement interview with CNN’s Christine Amanpour, he said that he left his job as America’s envoy to Syria because “I was no longer in a position where I felt I could defend the American policy. We have been unable to address either the root causes of the conflict in terms of the fighting on the ground and the balance on the ground, and we have a growing extremism threat.” Among the root causes of the conflict, the anti-Alawite sectarianism of the opposition no longer factored.

Contra his earlier self, Ford said that there were in fact good options for helping the opposition, which isn’t all that screwed up and certainly not to blame for Assad’s longevity. Actually, rebels we could work with are quite well known to the US government, which simply chooses to ignore them. “We’ve identified them quite well now,” Ford said. “Some people say, well, we don't know them well enough; we can’t depend on them. We know them quite well. We've worked with them for years.” Years!

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Michael Weiss is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the Institute of Modern Russia. He tweets at @michaeldweiss.

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