Small World: Diplomacy in action

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

When I was in the State Department looking out on the world and the world was trying to look in, I used to say that if you read a good newspaper carefully — including a squint between the lines — you would know what Washington was up to despite the high classifications on documents.

In those days, our State Department did not lie to the people, at least not blatantly. (Perhaps I should make an exception for the time of Henry Kissinger.) Omissions, yes, plenty of that; distortions, well maybe; but plain falsehoods, never. Over time, however, personnel change, needs change, tactics change and, voila, Pinocchio is in charge.

Let’s leave it there for the moment and try to figure out from open sources Washington’s dizzying flipping and flopping over Syria.

The most recent episode started with a supposed casual answer by Secretary Kerry to a press conference question: He was asked if there was anything Assad could do to avert an American-led attack.

“Sure,” Kerry replied, “he could turn over every bit of his [gas] weapons to the international community within the next week, without delay.”

“But, he isn’t about to,” Kerry added

Within a few hours, Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, replied that he liked Kerry’s idea and hoped the Syrians would accept it. They did so forthwith. Such speed of speech is perhaps thinkable in a semi-despotic regime run by an ex-KGB agent. In the State Department in my day, it would takes days to get all the various bureaus and agencies on board before final approval/modification in the White House and that would include time out for lunch and afternoon coffee breaks.

But hold on! Might such a complicated maneuver be possible, be conceivable, without advance preparation? Reading between the lines, I sense the exchange wasn’t as it appeared. In his Syria speech, President Obama himself acknowledged that he and President Putin had a conversation on the subject during the G20 meeting in Moscow. Common sense us tells that presidents don’t swap ideas unless they have been fully staffed out at a lower level. (Perhaps another exception for Ronald Reagan.)

So, I venture that the supposedly innocent question and answer and Russian response followed a well-staffed-out script. The U.S. goal was to get Obama out of the several binds he had put himself into by drawing a red line against the use of chemical weapons, then promising a surgical strike against Syrian targets and finally seeking congressional approval. On a deeper level, I strongly doubt that responsibility for an act of war had any appeal to an ex-community organizer. But how to avoid it? The first move seems to have been to seek delay by asking Congress to debate and support him. When it appeared a vote would deal a crippling negative blow, the search accelerated for another war-dodging deal. The Russians (and Syrians) were eager to cooperate in order to avoid U.S. rockets — whatever the game being played in Washington.

I suspect we are into a long, drawn-out scenario featuring negotiations at the United Nations and, on the side, increased arms for the rebels so that they might be willing to enter into round-table talks with all participants and regional and extra-regional powers to end the civil war. All this without visible, direct American engagement, to be sure.

That’s the plan (if my conjectures are correct). It will be actively opposed by Israel and its American friends, perennial Hawks plus always-eager defense merchants. For these folks, a conflict without resolution would be fine. For them, the goal of the greater game at play is not Syria’s collapse but the crushing of Iran and its nuclear program.

Unhappily for the conflict-minded, Iran now has a peaceable, sensible president who seems determined to end his country’s isolation and hard times and is open to negotiations and compromise. Can a peaceable American president take advantage of that opening to resolve our differences with Tehran? I suspect — on the basis of no evidence yet — that secret talks have started with the new Iranian regime. We’ll see. Stay tuned, and read the press carefully.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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