Hersh on US Syrian policy | LRB (6th April 2014)

If Hersh is right, White House policy towards Syria was unforgivable. Clever skulduggery in pursuit of sensible (and potentially attainable) goals can arguably be acceptable; stupidity, compounded by incompetent knavery, is always beyond the pale.

According to Hersh, the administration was quickly informed the sarin gas attack in August 2013 probably wasn’t carried out by the Syrian government. Analysis of samples by Porton Downs (in the UK) showed none of them matched the known profiles of official Syrian stockpiles. These doubts, as we all know, were entirely absent from official communications.

Fair enough, perhaps; in matters of state you can’t always play your cards face up. Well, what if we add another factor? Again according to Hersh, the attacks were carried out by Jihadist groups in Syria (not a new contention; quite a few observers thought that was the case from day one) with critical support from Turkey. And, what’s more, the initial pipeline into Syria through Turkey was a joint CIA/Turkish operation running armaments out of Libya which the US only withdrew from after the Benghazi consulate attack.

Faced with this unpleasant reality, what did the White House do? Ramped up the punitive attack plans, it seems.

The former intelligence official said that many in the US national security establishment had long been troubled by the president’s red line: ‘The joint chiefs asked the White House, “What does red line mean? How does that translate into military orders? Troops on the ground? Massive strike? Limited strike?” They tasked military intelligence to study how we could carry out the threat. They learned nothing more about the president’s reasoning.’

In the aftermath of the 21 August attack Obama ordered the Pentagon to draw up targets for bombing. Early in the process, the former intelligence official said, ‘the White House rejected 35 target sets provided by the joint chiefs of staff as being insufficiently “painful” to the Assad regime.’ The original targets included only military sites and nothing by way of civilian infrastructure. Under White House pressure, the US attack plan evolved into ‘a monster strike’: two wings of B-52 bombers were shifted to airbases close to Syria, and navy submarines and ships equipped with Tomahawk missiles were deployed. ‘Every day the target list was getting longer,’ the former intelligence official told me. [ . . .] The new target list was meant to ‘completely eradicate any military capabilities Assad had’, the former intelligence official said. The core targets included electric power grids, oil and gas depots, all known logistic and weapons depots, all known command and control facilities, and all known military and intelligence buildings.

Happily, common sense intervened. First, the British Parliament voted down UK government plans to take part in the attack. This fed existing concerns in Congress and it quickly became apparent Obama’s request for authorisation would fail. Faced with a humiliating defeat, he grabbed the out provided by Russia: no attacks in return for the rapid dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons capacity.

The good news is the US military establishment, together with some of the intelligence community, remained in touch with reality throughout. Equally, the UK defence establishment behaved much as one would hope.

The UK defence staff who relayed the Porton Down findings to the joint chiefs were sending the Americans a message, the former intelligence official said: ‘We’re being set up here.’ (This account made sense of a terse message a senior official in the CIA sent in late August: ‘It was not the result of the current regime. UK & US know this.’) By then the attack was a few days away and American, British and French planes, ships and submarines were at the ready.

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen Martin Dempsey, apparently also played a critical role in pulling the administration back from the brink.

Dempsey’s initial view after 21 August was that a US strike on Syria – under the assumption that the Assad government was responsible for the sarin attack – would be a military blunder, the former intelligence official said. The Porton Down report caused the joint chiefs to go to the president with a more serious worry: that the attack sought by the White House would be an unjustified act of aggression. It was the joint chiefs who led Obama to change course. The official White House explanation for the turnabout – the story the press corps told – was that the president, during a walk in the Rose Garden with Denis McDonough, his chief of staff, suddenly decided to seek approval for the strike from a bitterly divided Congress with which he’d been in conflict for years. The former Defense Department official told me that the White House provided a different explanation to members of the civilian leadership of the Pentagon: the bombing had been called off because there was intelligence ‘that the Middle East would go up in smoke’ if it was carried out.

If true (and Hersh’s revelations fit pretty well with sober views I’ve read elsewhere), we’re left with the vivid image of an astonishingly incompetent administration. One willing to risk disaster in pursuit of fundamentally misconceived strategic goals and only brought to heel by the most serendipitous sequence of interventions.

(h/t MoA)

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8 thoughts on “Hersh on US Syrian policy | LRB (6th April 2014)

  1. This is very thought provoking.

    I had originally thought that the Administration’s back down from its war whooping was a sign that the President had (after an initial blunder in taking an overly belligerent stand) had stiffened up and concluded that he would reverse course and stand up against concerted pressure from Israel (AIPAC was making an all-out push for war) and Saudi Arabia. But in retrospect, it is not characteristic of this President to get too far in front of any issue. In any event, the AIPAC onslaught was on Congress members, not the President, and not only has he always been willing to shove Congressmen (including those of his party) under the bus, but also it was the legislators themselves who were pushing back against AIPAC and some even vocally made the case against strikes altogether.

    I am dubious, however, about the account of Dempsey’s concern that an attack would be “an unjustified act of aggression.” This does not seem to jibe with the persona Dempsey displays in public. It’s also inconsistent with the actual conduct of the U.S. military for over a decade now. Plus, it is hardly credible that the President went so far out on a limb in favor of military action, without at least a lukewarm support by the Pentagon. This President is not one who could rally a reluctant institution like the Pentagon to do something out of the ordinary course if the military were against it. It is more credible that the pressure was going the other direction. But if Dempsey actually made the statement (and I’m sure Hersey always his sources room for retrospective reputation enhancement as a consideration for access), it probably was simply his best guess that that approach was most persuasive to the President (not because the military had much interest in the concept). And if the military supported the back down, why didn’t the President use them to deflect the flak he got from the Neocons when he did back down?

    Even given the White House’s tawdry and inconsistent behavior in this matter, and even conceding that it was a fortuity that allowed them to escape, at least a small amount of credit has to be given the Administration for making the pivot on the Putin-Assad offer on chemical weapons. Although the pull back from war was not gracefully executed, I would be hard pressed to name a President in the last half century who would have made the about face after having committed so much prestige to making the case for military action.

  2. You raise some good, and difficult, questions, DK.

    Taking the last one first, I’m happy enough to grant some credit. However, the foolishness required to get into such a position in the first place sweeps most of it away. Obama increasingly strikes me as feckless, lacking in well thought out, deeply held convictions and therefore prey to being blown about by impulses and pressures. My guess is he hadn’t properly grasped the growing distaste for adventures of this kind and ended up frantically casting about for any sort of vaguely credible exit from the coming train wreck. Going to Congress would give him political cover (if authority were granted) or at least allow him to claim a little moral credit if it wasn’t. In the end, of course, Russia made it relatively “easy”.

    As for Dempsey, I don’t know. You may be right that considerations of this sort aren’t part of his lexicon. I also take your point that pursuing such an aggressive approach without the support of the military (however half-hearted) would be highly unusual, not to mention foolhardy. Still, two things give me pause. The first is this administration’s capriciousness, its lack of settled seriousness. One only needs to read Rice’s and Power’s twitter threads to get a sense of how sophomoric White House policy-making appears to be. The second is that Dempsey impresses people who are in a position to know and who in turn have my respect. Like Col Pat Lang at Sic Semper Tyrannis, for example. For them, Dempsey is seen as a critical bulwark holding America back from doing something truly stupid.

  3. I see Obama as grossly inexperienced, but he is a thinker, not impulsive. That Dempsey is even in that job indicates he is willing to tell the neocons to stuff it.

    Here’s a theory:

    Russia, the US, and Israel (primarily) are concerned about the stockpiles falling into the hands of Jihadi’s. They have their best people ruminate on this problem for many moons, pondering the what if’s, and semi-determined that if they can find a way they will seek to get them removed.

    They decide that the false flag attacks of the rebels could be useful. It makes no sense to go after the rebels in any scenario, Assad is the only guy who can “make a difference” by giving up his stocks and thereby ending the false flag attacks. They hash it out with Putin, should somebody start using gas in there, and wait to see if anything will have to be done at all. When a major event happened it was classic good cop bad cop, with us waving Tomahawks and Putin asking him to give up his stocks. Iran may have joined with Putin as well. Why would they want an “ally” that uses gas?

    When Putin got his deal, Obama “decided” to let Congress play with it. Their reaction to his asking them anything is entirely predictable. Let the AIPACers and other hawks know the limit of their power. Dempsey in on it, had to be. Kerry, not so much.

    I be guessing, but am having a very hard time of imagining the situation of no planning for the event of a serious gas event in Syria, with ad-hoc military strikes being hashed out after Aug 21 as the “former intelligence official’s” story implies, to be credible. They had Plans A through whatever.
    Dempsey would have had to have been in on this, but not necessarily Kerry.

  4. Interesting theory, MK. I’m obviously in no position to rule it out but a few things do make me doubtful.

    To begin with, Obama didn’t emerge all that well from the whole episode. He looked either incompetent or duplicitous, depending on one’s point of view. Still does. His agreeing to play a role that leaves him in that position doesn’t strike me as all that likely.

    Secondly, it presumes a fairly high degree of cooperation and trust between the Russian leadership and the American. I don’t know that there’s much sign of that back then, and there certainly isn’t now.

    And, finally, it’s pretty complex. Still possible, of course, but I prefer a more straightforward explanation.

  5. Ingolf,

    “Monster wings of B-52’s”? More harm to civilian infrastructure? The embellishments of a bad liar, IMO. Somebody wanted very badly to cast Obama as a monster, which calls into question all of his claims. If he were a monster he would have simply announced the attack had taken place –ala Grenada, Libya, or any of the other “element of surprise” excuses our Presidents have given.

    I see no way for Obama to emerge well from this, it still was a hell of a roll of the dice. If Assad gets obstinate he would have been obligated to attack him, and if it works, Putin gets the credit. I think he is used to being demonized by the press now so he didn’t sweat the PR overmuch.

    Russia? Has sought to work with us where we have mutual interests of late, although we may have very recently blown that. They worry about terrorism, and have more to worry about than we do. Them seeking to get those stocks out of there seems logical to me. Iran fears Sunni extremism as well. Who wanted Assad to keep his stocks of that stuff laying around with the place going out of control? Perhaps it wasn’t terribly complex to convince him that stuff could not save him, and in fact was more liability than asset.

    Btw, I really enjoyed FB Ali’s book. I think it’s extremely difficult to broach and explain the things he both did and felt and that was a wonderful job.

  6. MK, entirely agree about “Prison Journey”; it’s a superb book and an immense credit to its author.

    As for the other matter, no argument with your third paragraph.

    However, I can’t yet accept last August/September as an arranged charade. Not just for the reasons noted earlier but because it doesn’t sit comfortably with my recollection of how things unfolded. Had the British Parliament not voted down Cameron, for example, I think there would probably have been an attack. That event was a genuine catalyst, transforming attitudes almost instantly.

    Still, with no inside information my take is just that so I can accept leaving the door to your theory open just a touch.

    Much appreciate your comments.

    P.S. (A small point: the quote was “a monster strike: two wings of B-52 etc etc “, not “Monster wings of B-52s”.)

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