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Only Amateurs Negotiate in Public

There is much buzz right now about whether the cruel Syrian Baathist-Alawite regime of Bashar Assad, struggling to hold on to power in the midst of civil war against rebel Sunni forces, crossed   President Obama’s “red line” by using Sarin gas, a war crime. That is not really the important point for Americans. There are two things to consider here.

First, specifically how would intervening militarily in Syria’s awful civil war be in American national interest?

It is important to get a clear cut answer here because everyone arguing that Assad has “crossed a red line” that we will “not tolerate” is making a de facto argument for some kind of intervention on our part. Maybe if no one can define such an interest it is because there isn’t any and intervening will bring the US nothing but costs in blood and treasure without gaining anything of strategic value. I’m not against intervention per se but there really ought to be a coherent reason so we can rationally measure it against the potential costs which, from where I sit, look rather large.

Secondly, in important matters of state, you don’t negotiate in public with a potential adversary if you really hope to gain a concession from them and if you reach the point of issuing a public ultimatum, you don’t bluff.

The people who have advised President Obama to make these “red line” statements to Syria through the media instead of quietly through diplomatic channels are either professionally incompetent at statecraft or they were hoping to manipulate the President by getting him to back himself into a corner with tough rhetoric so that if Assad did not blink then Obama would have the choice of looking weak and foolish or of approving some kind of action against Syria. Either way, the President was poorly served by this advice. Maybe he needs some new foreign policy and national security advisers who actually know something more about the world than domestic politics and being lawyer-lobbyists.

As a result that the President never really had any intentions of, say, invading Syria this year, we are now being treated to nervously asserted, lawyerly parsing of what really counts as “red lines” and what technical level of Sarin gas particulates constitutes “use”. It is an embarrassing climb down for the administration but also for the United States that never needed to happen. Empty posturing is not a substitute for a policy. Saying “Do something!” is not a strategy.

This is no brief for Assad’s regime. He’s definitely a bad actor and runs a nasty and now democidal police state he inherited from his mass-murdering father, Hafez Assad. I’m open to hearing why the US should aid in a regime change because the outcome will be in our interests in some concrete and definable way. Oh, yeah, and it might help if the person making the pitch knew something about Syria and regional geopolitics, or was at least consulted about it.

Let’s think long and hard this time.

15 Responses to “Only Amateurs Negotiate in Public”

  1. Madhu Says:

    Tom Ricks made the point about poor advising on his blog too. He was worried that the advisory circle was too  small and domestically focused. Also, little experience outside the worlds of law or government service. Perhaps that is why there is advice about red lines and so forth. It is a very legalistic and governmental view of national power.
    But to be fair, much of the advice by experts within the Washington Consensus–serious experts, not just politicized think tankers–is pretty awful these days too, it seems from my outsider perspective. The entire crew is practically having a national nervous breakdown over the fact that they may need to rethink the map in terms of regions of importance for American security.
    They can’t let go of the past, zen. Never seen anything like it. Grown men and women responsible for so much blood and treasure and power. Just never ever seen anything like it.
    We’ve been involved with Syria for a while now. Democracy promotion housed within the State Department has long knocked on the door of some of these regimes and that has set the ground work toward today, especially after the heady days of the early Arab Spring – money for dissidents, democracy activists, all of this is the basis for whatever the CIA and our Gulf and other liaison partners are doing behind the scenes. Frederic Hof at the Atlantic Council and all that….
    Democracy promotion IS regime change, what else is it? And in our activist State Department mindset, all boats eventually lead to intervention. Well, only where we traditionally opposed the regime. When we count it traditionally within our own system, we wipe up after messes even if it is in no rational interest to do so. Habit. The habits of the most curious cast of creatures I’ve ever encountered.
    Our unique system of hawks and doves makes us all hawks. Even the anti-war-dot-com crew sometimes contributes, unfortunately. Look at the COINTRA delusion as a counter the COINDINISTA delusion: why, we had the correct diplomacy with Holbrooke and crew in AfPak but the military didn’t let it work!
    No, what was proposed would never have worked. Diplomacy should be based on some semblance of reality.
    The humanitarian cost in Syria is terrible and I favor more humanitarian aid, but we partially contributed to the opening up of the flood gates (NOT suggesting the major fault is ours, not at all, Assad is terrible and it all had to fall someday) because our confused system doesn’t know what it wants from its diplomacy. Too many bad habits left over from the Cold War and 90/00’s interventionist years–things that might have worked in that environment are counterproductive to both American and humanitarian interests today, IMO.
    And will our dear partners in NATO and Europe please start taking the security in their region seriously?
    I guess they want to be the world’s NGO and all that messy work must be left to others. Very left-over monarchist, to take a page from Pundita.
    To be fair, the Washington Consensus is deathly afraid that their jobs are in jeopardy if someone else learns to manage his or her own affairs. They really are in a panic. 
    Eh, my mood is rotten, don’t mind me.
    Hearing about lots of refugees from that part of the world and colleagues and friends telling me stories. “Get out,” they all say, “everyone needs to get out while they can.” Just get out and go anywhere safe. I notice no enthusiasm for outside intervention from these folks, however, so perhaps my ideas are colored by that.

  2. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    If the neocons and many proponents of the “Arab spring” are to be believed (and I don’t), the “rebels” are mostly lovers of “democracy;” natural allies of the U.S….Of course, we’ve heard this before from both the right and, and more recently, the left, and we can expect to hear more going forward.
    The gist of your post goes back to the notion of “interest,” of fear, honor, interest fame. 

  3. Madhu Says:

    @ J Scott: Even the traditional realists in our system seem confused these days. Is realism that we have to stay so involved in the Mid East because of oil and Iran and Israel and China and global markets, or do we need to rebalance and disengage from the region because we cannot control events and will spend too much blood and treasure trying?
    What is realism and fear and honor and interest in today’s age? I have an idea but it makes me, in the sort of words of Richard Betts (sorry, I’m kind of on a kick about his stuff and quoting it everywhere like an undergraduate; personally, I think all this is my nerdy version of a midlife crisis), I was a Cold War hawk and now I’m a twenty-first century dove.
    Different ages require different ways of looking at national security….
    Sorry. In such a talkative mood these days. 

  4. Madhu Says:

    Oh, wait, on the chemical weapons? We have got ourselves in a fix on nuclear and chemical weapons proliferation, haven’t we? One hand counters, the other aids and abets within our network of alliances and global connections.
    Turn it over to the UN, as others have said, and then stay out of it unless others pony up the necessary resources, including on the ground, and even then, mindful of the proxy war effects of it all….
    Like everyone else, I don’t know. I could not advise on these things for a living. It’s all so terrible.

  5. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    At a recent luncheon hosted by a “conservative” group here in DC, several speakers held forth on the democratic attributes of rebel groups. During the Q&A, someone asked the speakers to specifically identify those rebel groups claiming democracy as their cause—-there was much sputtering, and a Washington answer (translated: no answer).
    Perhaps the “realists” of the day have been replaced by wishful thinkers and utopian-minded policy makers who care more about image than interest? 

  6. Madhu Says:

    J. Scott,

    I suspected as much….what has happened to us? 

  7. Madhu Says:

    Greg Scoblete at The Compass Blog (Real Clear World) has a good piece:

  8. Madhu Says:

    And Pat Lang:
    And that’s all I can take for the moment. Later, folks. 

  9. Dave Schuler Says:

    I’ve conmplained about the same thing both at my place and at OTB.
    I don’t think threats and “red lines” are worth making whether in public or in private.  If you’re in a position of strength, you don’t need to make threats.  If you’re in a position of weakness, they’re not credible.  They’re really only useful if nobody knows for sure whether you’re weak or strong.  Translation:  Saddam Hussein.
    The real purpose of making threats and drawing “red lines” is for domestic political consumption.  Appearing strong without actually needing to do anything.  Why should a second term president make threats?

  10. joey Says:

    Obama came out with the Red line stuff because nobody thought Assad could be so stupid as to use Chemical weapons,  it was a don’t bother me until the chemical weapons come out to play line from Pres.

    Chemical weapons are an excellent tool to bounce the US/West into some kind of air intervention ala Libya, how well guarded are those stock piles, who has access?  If Sarin was compromised, it would be kept under wraps by Assad for as long as possible.  
    On the other hand, Assad doesn’t seem too clever,  and it is possible that the small somewhat deniable deployment was a way to test the waters.

    Syria’s neighbors are certainly right to be exercised by the chemical weapons held by Syria,  and if the regime does collapse,  the securing of those sites would lead to intervention by the US,  as I can’t imagine Israel doing it without disastrous reaction from the Syrian population.

    In a perfect world the US would conduct a rapid destruction of Syrian command and control/air defenses,  collapse the regime using the Libyan formula adapted for local conditions.  ASAP they would secure the Chemical weapons, and then leave.  
    Ending the Regime would help turn off the flow of jihadists to Syria.  Ending the war and bringing an end to the fighting against the Assad’s would allow time for the terrible wounds to Syrian Civil society to heal,  and hopeful prevent the radicalization of more young Syrians.  
    Syria, home to large numbers of Shia and Christians who face a dark future as a brutal civil war serves to radicalize Sunnis,  it would be awful to watch the destruction of another ancient christian society in the middle east.

    Syria already seems to be renewing with vigor the Iraqi bloodbath,  as fighters pass freely along the border, the longer the fighting grinds on, the more dangerous this will be.  
    The capture of nerve agents by the radical Islamic fighters is a abiding and very real fear, this is a danger that can only increase with time.

    A rapid victory by Assad would also solve those problems.  

    OK I’ve concluded that keeping Assad in power is in America’s best interests, either that or toppling him, either one or the other,  this festering sore is not.

    You can take this comment as seriously as you like 🙂

  11. larrydunbar Says:

    “…is making a de facto argument for some kind of intervention on our part.”

    Of course that in itself is saying a lot. I mean pre Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, that “some kind of intervention” should mean something completely different than what it means now. Has our military leadership learned nothing about war?

    As an example, a “post” Afghanistan intervention could mean “allowing” Turkey and Israel into the game. 

    And then, while Russia sets itself up as being somewhat aligned with the Syrian government, Russia also seems to have the technology and military units ready for intervention into a”war crimes” scenario such as chemical weapons.

    A green light from Washington for a Russian intervention would hardly be beneficial to the “rebels”, and give Syria a more “Orthodox” type government, a big boost for a Putin legacy. Perhaps it is time he finds a worthy place for those petrol “dollars”, and stop giving them to the US. I think there are enough “Conservatives” in the US who would be happy not to spend anything more, and would laugh at the thought of a “Russian” answer. Of course I don’t think the Liberals would be willing to go along with such a thing. 

    I am just saying, it is perhaps wise to set your “redlines” within the fog of diplomacy as you say, but it could also be, given what has happened in the 10 plus years after 9/11, that “intervention” can also be made within the “fog” of “diplomacy”. I don’t think Hagel will deploy his brothers in a losing cause, it would be interesting to see what he thinks is winning. Send them in as liberators?

    I still think that the fact no expeditionary forces (with or without Hagel) were deployed in Libya during the Bengasi event is pretty significant. At least the fact that a couple of sob-sisters like McCain and Graham couldn’t make nothing of it seem to me to be a significant fact.   

  12. T. Greer Says:

    One negotiates in public when the intended audience is not somebody (or somebodies) you can speak to in private. Obama knows this. You cannot have served in the U.S. Senate and not know this. Balancing heated public messages and back-room private negotiations is all they do. 


    So who was his intended audience?  

  13. Madhu Says:

    I dunno, T. Greer. Domestic or international? Or reflecting an administration split rather than a concerted policy?
    ‘ “To date, the administration has not initiated any major policy changes in response to the classified cable, but a Deputies Committee meeting of top administration officials is scheduled for this week.
    The report confirms the worst fears of officials who are frustrated by the current policy, which is to avoid any direct military assistance to the Syrian rebels and limit U.S. aid to sporadic deliveries of humanitarian and communications equipment.
    Many believe that Assad is testing U.S. red lines.
    “This reflects the concerns of many in the U.S. government that the regime is pursuing a policy of escalation to see what they can get away with as the regime is getting more desperate,” the administration official said.
    The consulate’s investigation was facilitated by BASMA, an NGO the State Department has hired as one of its implementing partners inside Syria. BASMA connected consular officials with witnesses to the incident and other first-hand information.” ‘ – The Cable, Foreign Policy, Josh Rogin (Jan. 15 blog entry). If I try and add links, sometimes the comment gets “eaten” by the system. I figure the curious can find the post from that info.
    Could be insiders trying to game the situation toward intervention, could be something else????….

  14. Madhu Says:

    I smell funny business behind the scenes but I am such a suspicious minded person. I might very well be wrong. Ah, late for something, gotta go, zenpundit peoples!

  15. larrydunbar Says:

    “So who was his intended audience?”

    Exactly, who could that audience be? I think Zen was correct in his assessment that it wasn’t for Americans, i.e., “That is not really the important point for Americans.”.

    I think Obama’s dialog was directed toward an area where we once dominated. In other words, it was more for an international audience such as Turkey, China and Russia. And of course for Israel, which this dialog is significant in that Israel is not being included in this conversation, nor in my link below.

    “NATO member Turkey signed up on Friday to became a “dialogue partner” of a security bloc dominated by China and Russia, and declared that its destiny is in Asia.”

    Via: http://chinadailymail.com/2013/04/27/turkey-becomes-partner-of-china-russia-led-security-bloc/

    While America hasn’t gone down the “austerity” path like the losers in the EU. I think these world leaders are pretty sure we are going down that path in the not too distance future. I think Obama’s statement is a reminder to them where they are going, as we head down an opposite path.

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