"Why will we not listen to the Syrian government?"
That is an interesting question. Of course it would be reasonable for the US to come to terms with Assad, but hostility towards Assad was a choice the US made a while back. However, there was nothing inevitable about it, and one has to be clear about the fact that this hostility was a choice the US made.
In a sense, this is emblematic for a number of wrongheaded trends in contemporary US foreign policy that I have been watching first with incredulity and finally with terror over the years.
A US standard operating procedure is one of personal demonization of the leaders of countries designated as enemies. Once the label has been put on such a country, my impression is that US media start to want to help, and they then start to amplify government propaganda, and self-censor by not reporting things that may shed a good light on such countries.
As it is with propaganda, it works best at home. As far as the US is concerned Russia is Putin, Iraq was Saddam, Afghanistan is Karzai, Iran was Ahmadinejad, Syria is Assad, Libya was Gadhafi, Egypt was Mubarak, Mursi and now Sisi. People live there too, but that’s details. What counts is that every single one of these leaders is another Hitler. In light of that it is probably not an accident that US citizens consistently poll poorly on matters concerning the rest of the world.
This is a self-inflicted wound. It makes changes of policy, necessary in case of observable failure, a tough sell. So tough in fact that once a policy it is set on course in then US, it usually runs almost on autopilot. There is no re-examination, no course correction. Cuba is a case in point.
It appears that the US are ill advised to demonize opposing leaders. It limits freedom of movement politically. Also, words have consequences, a lesson lost on DC, considering the invective heaped on Putin by what the US nowadays employs as diplomats. But maybe the destruction of trust and the deliberate squandering of goodwill is the very point of the exercise.
Staying on course probably is just too much fun: Assad is evil. Putin is a KGB thug. Deal with such a guy??! LOL. #putinstinks. ROFL. Kin Yong Il has a funny hairdo. *snicker*
What else is left to say after that? Well, a lot actually.
Debilitating oversimplification and debating fiction
The US theme is one of debilitating oversimplification. The effect is best described in the old adage: "Garbage in, garbage out."
I think that one of the more troubling aspects of the American political discourse on foreign policy right now is a propensity for propaganda and deliberate and obvious lies that has become a permanent feature of DC foreign policy announcements. A rather recent example was the denial that there are no neo-Nazis in Ukrainian government. Right. As if to top things off, Kerry cites as evidence things he has seen on Youtube. Of course. I wouldn’t start a war based on anything less.
Instead of "5 o'clock follies" we now get the same in a 24h news cycle. While the US propagandizes herself mindlessly, government secrecy controls the message.
In the net result, we see a concerted effort by media and administration to degrade their own capability to come to a reality based understanding of a situation and to make informed foreign policy decisions about it. One could see that already when the Bushmen leaked those stories on the Aluminium tubes to Judith Miller and then referred to this as evidence. "It is not just us, everybody is saying this - and you doubt it?" That was pervasive during the run up to the war.
As a result, congress and media were essentially talking about fiction when they debated the equally fictious question how great exactly a threat Saddam posed. That was no debate about reality. Indeed, by putting out their narrative, the Bushmen created their own virtual reality. But that didn’t change Iraq, or its demographics, its society or the fact that Saddam didn’t have WMD. What it did was to generate public support for the war against Iraq.
The Obamaites act in much the same way when they blather about Ghouta being Assad’s handiwork, when it is by now pretty much clear that that was not the case.
The corrosive effect all this has on the idea that policy ought to be debated openly in congress should be obvious. To put it pointedly: When half of the info is secret, and the other half nonsense, the resulting dysfunction should not surprise anybody. In that spirit, the authorization to use military force was enacted without the matter having been debated rationally at all.
The usual suspects and their usual prescriptions
Of course, all that is not so if one asks the culprits: The messes today and their familiar prescriptions for how to deal with them reflect that sorry state of affairs.
On one hand there are the self-pitying self-justifiers like Tony Blair, which can be summed up with very little exaggeration as follows: “Iraq went bust? Well, it is a very complicated situation, and, I have spent a lot time on this, you must know, and let me tell you: Things are hazy, and there are no easy solutions and who could have known what would happen. You are as surprised as I was. You cannot begin to understand how difficult this all was, and how heavy the burden of responsibility weighed on my shoulders! But in conclusion I have to tell you – whatever we did was perfectly right and we feel vindicated! I was so right – in fact I would do the same thing today, without hesitation!” The man knows no shame.
And then there are the concrete heads: Sanctions don't work? Then more sanctions will do! Cuba is a model case for how well that works. Iraq is an utter mess and the US were kicked out and now it is unstable? Well, that is so because Obama betrayed that nation by abandoning it. He lost Iraq! That's why the US needs to go back in! What a remedy. US support of rebels incited a civil war in Libya, which is now split into two feuding Jihadistans, and which spilled over into neighbouring Mali? Easy – find a good guy to support. US support of rebels incited a civil war in Syria, which bred ISIS? Just as easy – that is because the moderate rebels need still more support, and perhaps a bombing campaign! Of course, this time it’ll work!
Einstein’s definition of insanity was “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” By that standard US foreign policy is insane.
Regime change NOT a surrogate for having a foreign policy
For whatever reason, there appears to be conviction abound in DC that a goal of regime change is a surrogate for a policy. Regime change is an ideé fixe that persists and festers in US foreign policy brains like a malignant tumor that rots mental faculties.
It’s as simplistic as it gets: Whenever a country is doing things the US doesn’t want it to do, and the leaders are not going to change their mind, the US is going through the motions:
First these leaders are being scolded, but this may be skipped on occasion. When that doesn’t work, pressure is being applied - legal, extralegal, illegal - and when that country still persists in resisting, and since the US backing down is not ever an option, sanctions follow, and support for the opposition etc pp. If that doesn’t work there is the silver bullet – regime change.
The idea must be that if only that troublesome leader in question goes away, everything will be peachy. The prime example would be Iraq. A splendid success obviously, though I doubt we’ll see McCain shopping at the Baghdad Bazaar again anytime soon.
Fiction, false perceptions and delusion
When one listens to US policy pronouncements there appears to be little concern for why foreign leaders act as they do. Their and their countries interests don’t matter. They are more like a stage for the US to act out their global reach and play to their domestic audiences.
Just take for instance Syria and their alliance Hezbollah and Iran. Why is Syria allied with Iran? How important is this alliance for Syria? Never mind, the US want to roll back Iran, and Hezbollah (for the Israelis and the Saudis, one of the more peculiar alliances of our days), and Syria is with Iran, so Syria either falls in line or into chaos.
What does the US offer as an alternative to Syria’s alliance with Iran and Hezbollah? Well, unconditional surrender of course. Compromise is not on the table. And in face of such a generous offer Assad won’t accept US terms? Just because doing so would probably mean death for him, his wife, kids, their extended family and persecution of religious minorities, including Christians, in Syria by Jihadi fanatics? What’s not to like!
If one accepts the wisdom of John Kerry and the US media, the reasons why some foreign leaders just won’t fall in line remain mysterious, and are usually attributed to personal flaws rather than matters of policy – which in turn leads to ridiculous theses like: Putin wants to recreate the USSR, and he’s a thug – he was in the KGB! – that’s why he is being so nasty. It’s nothing that the US does and could stop doing. NATO’s creeping expansion towards Russia’s borders is just an accident.
Plain dumb policy
It's not that US policies are just bad because they consistently don't work (as the various Middle Eastern messes underline). They are often just plain dumb. Often it could and should have been quite clear from the onset that they would not work, usually because they ignore realities on the ground as a matter of course.
The examples for that are plentiful – starting with seeing sympathy for Hashemite kings were there isn’t any, or not seeing holy places where there are many and (sadly) not ending with seeing moderates where there only is the Muslim pendant to the Khmer Rouge.
As a result, in US policy prescriptions and the media descriptions there is that one bad guy, the demonized leader, and then there are the good guys. Like ISIS. On which folks like McCain say that, at least, they are not working with Iran. Well, thank God for that.
And because the newsies are not much brighter, the inglorious architects of these various messes are reinvited on TV again and again, and not shamed and marginalized as it would befit bumblers and fools and as accountability would suggest. Obviously, in America a record of delusion is no obstacle to be invited as an expert on TV.
Red lines and fecklessness
Another troubling aspect is Obama’s fecklessness, and I am not referring to it the way the neocons and Republicans mean it.
It is true that Obama’s threats have been devoid of substance (which has been good on the particular cases, but which is bad as a whole). What is just as bad if not worse is that most of the time Obama’s threats have been uttered needlessly. Don’t threaten people unless you’re willing to back your words with actions, or you might find yourself in more trouble than you bargained for. That rule ought to work as well in a bar as in foreign policy.
The neocons, in their usual shamelessness, bemoan that Obama showed weakness by not backing up his red line in Syria with overwhelming force. Indeed, time to smash some crappy little country at the wall again as Mr. Ledeen would perhaps put it.
Well, the intelligent reply would be that Obama – if he had had his wits together – should have never uttered the red line in the first place, even less so if he was unwilling to follow through with it anyway.
There was no need at all for this red line on Syria. The only conceivable purpose for that red line was to facilitate an intervention, which was quite obviously the point. Kerry or one of the Amazons must have carried the day in some inter administration meeting. The rebels then, apparently with Turkish aid, went to work at Ghouta and created for Kerry the casus belli that the red line was designed to provide and to, finally, allow for a massive bombing campaign against Syria. That must have been the plan all along, which explains handily not only Kerry's incredulity over Syria accepting the chemical weapons deal, but also his outrage of having been robbed his splendid little war! Again!
And back to Kerry winning this day, and Burns winning another day - there is no unity of purpose and no unity of command short of Obama having the last word. There is no coherent US foreign policy vis a vis Russia or Iran or Syria or Israel. Obama is a reed in the wind. That is why his foreign policy looks like he is rolling dice.
The matter of trustworthiness
As if the Bush times were not bad enough, the US under Obama have proven to be a thoroughly treacherous ally. The US under Obama has kicked in the teeth about anybody who has helped them so far. That record is a liability in itself. Americans are well advised to finally understand it as such.
The US and Libya
Ghaddafi's fate, after he came in from the cold, is a good example. The US got him killed. Why? Because, regime change. Well, and because the US wanted to be seen vanguarding the Arab spring, lest it takes a direction the US couldn't control. Or so they thought. Ambassador Stevens could tell a story about how well steering that one worked, if he was still alive. And then there was that surprising spillover into Mali. Oopsie.
The US and Iran
The US flirt with Iran suffers from the America being afflicted with bipolar disorder. It's a near marvel that the Iranians put up with the way the US have conducted themselves, and IMO their persistence only shows how serious they are. Naturally, the Obamaites are split between those who support a deal and those who oppose it, with the latter probably seeing the negotiations as signs of Iranian weakness and are eagerly trying to poison the deal by moving the goalposts. Probably they think that there is a chance that this perceived weakness may, finally, lead to regime change.
And of course, for the Likudniks it suffices that hostility with Iran is good for Israel, because as long as that lasts, they need not talk about occupied territories and other unpleasant things of that sort.
The US and Russia
The US relation to Russia likewise suffers from US bipolarity. US-Russian cooperation prevented wear against Syria and Iran, and probably made that US-Iranian flirt possible in the first place. Russia helped the US resupply Afghanistan. They helped against Islamist terrorism. But despite all that, the quaint idea that good relations with Russia are sensible (not only because they have a lot of nukes) and useful was apparently shared only by some folks in the NSC, with the State Department and the rest of the administration remaining hostile, and Obama, ever hedging, presiding over his rivalling rivals, refusing to decide anything but in the last moment lest he needs to take sides in their infighting.
The result? The US rewarded Putin for his help by kicking loose the mess in Ukraine. Why? Because, regime change. Because regime change has been the default setting for the last decade anyway. And probably nobody had a better idea. The odds are that, if anybody was supervising Nuland, he or she may have just liked what she did. A display of unadulterated brilliance.
And again back to regime change and Russia: How on earth can anybody seriously believe that, if Putin went away, Russia would rediscover their inner Boris Yeltsin, pop up a barrel of Vodka and merrily revive the days of drunken bumdom, rapacious (i.e. Chodorchovskiite) looting and servile subordination to the US that greatly helped to wreck the country after the Cold War ended?
The Russians have interests, and these interests won't go away with Putin. Putin represents a Russian foreign policy consensus, which he admittedly helped shaping, but which is nevertheless a consensus. Regime change won't change that. Neither will it undo NATO expansion, missile defense and continuing NATO encroachment to Russia’s borders. It also won't undo rejection by the EU to let Russia participate in some form in Europe’s common market. And in particular it won't undo US habitual and reflexive hostility towards a Russia with a modicum of assertiveness.
Then there is that other major point that Obama and his people, just as if destabilizing countries by facilitating civil war wasn't enough, are busy at work killing the Westphalian Order, drone strike by drone strike, entirely oblivious or indifferent to the ripple effect that has for international stability and sovereignty.
That is something on which any debate in the US is pretty much nonexistent anywhere but in narrow academic circles. Obviously, for the policymakers hegemony overrides sovereignty, so this is something for lesser countries to worry about.
Well, until China flies drones over the US, but that may take some years. And for so long, bombs away!
In closing, if the US started to listen to Assad, he ought to better be careful. The dictum "The only thing worse than being a US enemy is being a US ally" rings true. If Assad ever gets to make a deal with the US, he would be well advised to check the drinks for poison and to have escape routes ready. The US just might try to get him killed anyway if again someone sways Obama at the 11th hour. Because, regime change.
So it is all "Yes we can". What about "No, we shouldn't" for a change. One hopes ...
Well, self-restraint is unheard of in DC for more than a decade. So is prudence.