The State Department’s Syria Revolt

June 22 2016

Last week, over 50 U.S. diplomats submitted an official letter of protest criticizing the White House’s Syria policy and calling for air strikes and bombardment to enforce the U.S.-sponsored cease fire and protect civilians. Elliott Abrams comments:

Diplomats rarely do this sort of thing—official, written dissents—because it is not generally good for their careers.

A cynic might note that in this case, the Obama administration has only six months to go, and the policies being proposed are not far from those supported by Hillary Clinton. But I would not be so cynical. I think this memo reflects anguish and disgust by dozens of career diplomats (I will bet every single one of whom voted for [Obama]), and I wish the president were sufficiently open-minded and humble to ask himself how we got to this place. He is not, but this is nevertheless a moment worth reflection.

There are eight million refugees and displaced persons and perhaps 400,000 dead in Syria, a reassertion of Russian power, and an extensive presence of Hizballah and Iranian forces. Those are the fruits of the president’s policy—a policy that in 2012 Secretary of State Clinton, Secretary of Defense Panetta, CIA Director David Petraeus, and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff rejected when they recommended that the United States support the rebels. But Obama [in turn] rejected all that advice.

Career diplomats in the State Department, in my experience, do not run around calling for bombing campaigns very often. Unsurprisingly, they usually call for diplomacy—but at least in this case are able to see that diplomacy unsupported by strength is foolishness, mere words, not a policy but a substitute for policy. They have manned the desks handling Mr. Kerry’s Syria negotiations in Geneva, and been embarrassed by the effort.

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More about: Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Politics & Current Affairs, State Department, Syrian civil war, U.S. Foreign policy

Iran’s Defeat May Not Be Immediate, but Effective Containment Is at Hand

Aug. 20 2018

In the 1980s, the U.S. pursued a policy of economic, military, and political pressure on the Soviet Union that led to—or at least hastened—its collapse while avoiding a head-on military confrontation. Some see reasons to hope that a similar strategy might bring about the collapse of the Islamic Republic. Frederick Kagan, however, argues against excessive optimism. Carefully comparing the current situation of Iran to that of the Gorbachev-era USSR, he suggests instead that victory over Tehran can be effectively achieved even if the regime persists, at least for the time being:

What must [an Iran] strategy accomplish in order to advance American national security and vital national interests? Regime change was the only outcome during the cold war that could accomplish those goals, given the conventional and nuclear military power of the Soviet Union. Iran is much weaker by every measure and much more vulnerable to isolation than the Soviets were. . . . Isolating Iran from external resources and forcing the regime to concentrate on controlling its own population would be major accomplishments that would transform the Middle East. . . .

It is vital to note that the strategy toward the Soviet Union included securing Western Europe against the Soviet threat and foreclosing Soviet efforts to pare America’s allies, especially West Germany, away from it while simultaneously supporting (in an appropriately limited fashion) the Solidarity uprising in Poland and the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan. It is not meaningful to speak of a victory strategy against Iran that does not include contesting Iranian control and influence in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq while strengthening and hardening the Arab frontline states (including Oman and Qatar) against Iranian influence.

Syria is Iran’s Afghanistan—it is the theater in which Iranian forces are most vulnerable, where Iranian popular support for the war is wearing thin, and where the U.S. can compel [Iran] to expend its limited resources on a defensive battle. Iraq is Iran’s Poland—the area Iran has come to dominate, but with limitations, and a country Iran’s leaders believe they cannot afford to lose. The U.S. is infinitely better positioned to contest Iran’s control over Iraq than it ever was in Poland (and similarly better positioned in Syria than it was in Afghanistan).

A long-term approach would focus on building a consensus among America’s allies about the need to implement a victory strategy. It would deter the Russians and Chinese from stepping in to keep Iran alive. It would disrupt the supply chain of strategic materials Iran needs to advance its nuclear and conventional military capabilities. And it would force Iran to fight hard for its positions in Iraq and Syria while simultaneously pressing the Iranian economy in every possible way. Such a strategy would almost certainly force the Islamic Republic back in on itself, halt and reverse its movement toward regional hegemony, exacerbate schisms within the Iranian leadership and between the regime and the people, and possibly, over time, and in a uniquely Iranian way, lead to a change in the nature of the regime.

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More about: Cold War, Iran, Politics & Current Affairs, Soviet Union, U.S. Foreign policy