Earlier this year, Seymour Hersh, America’s leading investigative journalist, published an intriguing article on U.S. policy towards the growing conflict in Syria and Iraq. “Military to Military,” which appeared in the London Review of Books, maintains that the Pentagon’s intelligence analysts have, since 2013, been advising against the White House policy of removing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, arguing that it would create a power vacuum in the country that would inevitably be exploited by groups like ISIS. The analysts cited the examples of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya as examples of what might go wrong. They also argued that arming a group of “moderate” rebels to overthrow the Damascus government was delusional because even moderates were of necessity entering into “accommodations” with radical groups.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff also observed that the more extreme rebels were being supplied with weapons by feckless allies, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, who were exploiting the crisis in support of their own narrowly construed agendas. They attributed the White House obsession with al-Assad to a Cold War type of mentality born of the view that Syria is a client state of Russia, which continues to be seen as the principal challenge to U.S. global hegemony. It is not a view that the Pentagon embraces, seeing a much more complicated evolving threat situation in the heart of the Arab world that has little or nothing to do with great power rivalry.
According to Hersh, after being ignored by the White House, the Department of Defense began pushing back behind the scenes to undermine the administration policy on al-Assad by sharing intelligence with a number of foreign liaison services—to include Russia, Germany, and Israel—that it knew would be leaked to the Syrian government. The “leaks” of intelligence started in the summer of 2013 and continued until 2015, with the intention of strengthening Damascus’s ability to resist opposition forces, most particularly al-Nusra and ISIS. The information being shared was regarded as “military to military” exchanges and neither the White House nor the State Department was briefed regarding it.
As the United States has also been simultaneously arming and training the so-called “moderate” opposition forces, the possible support of al-Assad would suggest that Washington has been engaged on both sides of the conflict, which is quite possibly an accurate assessment. One expects a certain lack of coherence in the foreign policy emanating from the Barack Obama White House, but what is particularly disturbing is the “Seven Days in May” suggestion that the Pentagon might be running its own unconstitutional foreign policy without the consent of the nation’s civilian leadership.
To be sure, there have been rumblings of discontent from the Pentagon that might have suggested that something was not quite right. Former Defense Secretaries Leon Panetta and Robert Gates have complained in their memoirs that the national security policy process was increasingly being micromanaged by the White House, which itself was nevertheless unable to exercise effective leadership to establish priorities.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel resigned in late 2014 reportedly because he had been disconcerted by a lack of clarity coming out of the White House. He reportedly objected to the increasingly secretive National Security Council (NSC) usurpation of security policy decision making that hitherto had been shared with the Defense Department. He also had sharp disagreements with National Security Advisor Susan Rice over contradictions in the policy against ISIS, arguing that a well-articulated program to address the terrorism threat as a regional issue rather than as distinct problems in Iraq and Syria was essential. He also questioned the lack of any clear policy towards the Syrian government. Hagel, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, was eventually asked to resign and was replaced by non-veteran bean counter Ash Carter, who has carefully not made waves while characteristically pushing issues like gender equality in the military’s combat arms to the fore.
Hersh’s article has only received limited reviews, most of which have been somewhat disparaging, quite likely because a rogue Pentagon is the worst nightmare of every establishment politician and journalist. And, to be sure, there has been some questioning of the “facts” as well as judgments made in his piece, though they have not refuted his central thesis. To be fair, Sy Hersh undoubtedly has top-level sources in the Pentagon and he is meticulous in his fact checking but there is always a possibility that a source might well be embellishing a tale or exaggerating his or her own involvement in it.
As chance would have it, I have recently had candid discussions with two current members of the National Security Council who will have to remain nameless. The first one dropped a bombshell, to my mind, by observing that President Obama, like Bill Clinton, is largely indifferent to intelligence reports. He rarely reads the digests that are presented to him each morning and prefers to make decisions based on his own instincts and what he is being told by his advisors.
The second official, who has been on the NSC since Obama took office, explained the Obama world view. He said that Obama has been convinced by his three closest foreign policy advisors—Rice, Valerie Jarrett, and Samantha Power—that the top U.S. foreign policy priority should be the “responsibility to protect,” or R2P as it is abbreviated. He described how the Obama team sees the Rwandan Genocide of 1994, in which at least half a million mostly Tutsi tribesmen died while the world looked on, as equivalent to the way in which neoconservatives view the Holocaust, leading them to act as if it’s always 1938 in Munich. The interventions in both Libya and Syria can be explained in those terms: a bid to prevent mass slaughter of civilians without any particular regard for what comes afterwards or what the strategic consequences might be. If Obama agrees in principle to keep substantial numbers of American troops in Afghanistan past 2017, the reasoning and possible consequences will be the same.
Given the basic White House prejudice of protecting civilians as the top priority, it becomes easy to understand why Bashar al-Assad is seen as the fundamental problem in the Syria fandango. Al-Assad, it is generally agreed, has killed more Syrians than have the rebels, which makes him the principal enemy. What is ignored in that calculation is the actual U.S. interest in the conflict, which is, to put it in its simplest terms, that ISIS and al-Nusra actually directly threaten the United States while al-Assad does not.
This deliberate unwillingness on the part of the White House to discern a simple truth regarding the conflict has been noted recently by an increasing number of journalists and even politicians. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard and Virginia State Senator Dick Black, both of whom are veterans, have publicly challenged the implications of the current U.S. policy.
The White House inclination to respond to claims of genocide as the principal driver of policy was prominent in the 2011 intervention in Libya. Investigative journalist Gareth Porter has described how the Defense Intelligence Agency studied the Libyan situation and concluded that probability of mass killings taking place if Gaddafi were to remain in place was based only on “speculative arguments.” It warned correctly and presciently that no actual U.S. interest would be served by intervention, which would only open the door to an extremist takeover of the government.
Porter also recounts how in an eerie parallel to later developments in Syria, the White House approved a plan to cooperate with Qatari government attempts to arm the Libyan rebels. Washington soon discovered that the weapons went mostly to the most radical groups, including the al-Qaeda affiliate.
According to Porter, the U.S. military’s African Command persisted even after the bombing began, arranging a cease fire directly with Gaddafi which would enable him to step down and turn over the reins of government to his army, which would preempt an extremist takeover. The State Department under Hillary Clinton refused to consider such an option. When it was reported that Gaddafi had been killed she laughed and quipped, “We came, we saw, he died.”
The heaping-Ossa-upon-Pelion history of regrettably poor policy choices made by the White House brings one back to the beginning. Is Sy Hersh possibly correct in describing Pentagon pushback against administration policies? And if so, what does that mean in terms of civilian control of the military? As both Hersh and Porter observe, the activity by the generals did not change policy one bit—and one might also imagine that it would be a brave flag officer who would jeopardize his career by engaging in activity that would be unlikely to have any real impact.
I would suspect there is more than a touch of hyperbole in the tale of generals engaging in derring-do to tweak the nose of the White House and I would add that the rebellion by the Joint Chiefs, if it occurred as described, is really little more than a display of petulance. But it is nevertheless interesting to note the depth of unhappiness among professionals in government with the administration’s stop-and-go policies in the Middle East. It is also important to recognize that the collaborative bureaucratic process that once upon a time generated foreign policy has largely been abandoned under the Obamas and one might observe, parenthetically, that U.S. president presumptive Hillary Clinton was part and parcel of the new reality both for Libya and Syria. More recently, she has called for a no-fly zone for Syria which might well lead to the shooting down of Russian planes. I wonder what the Joint Chiefs of Staff think about that?
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.