March 9, 2010 | NOW Lebanon

Who Is Leading On US-Mideast Policy?

In the past week, a new element was introduced into the unfolding and cacophonous saga of the Obama administration’s new Syria policy, namely the appearance of Senator John Kerry.

During a trip to the Middle East, Kerry spoke by telephone with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and later commented on the recent Damascus summit between Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, at which the United States, and specifically Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was openly ridiculed. Kerry went out of his way to make excuses for Assad, downplayed the significance of the summit, and blamed Syria’s alliance with Iran on the Bush administration.

Kerry’s actions beg the question: Who exactly, if anyone, is taking the lead on Washington’s Middle East policy and defining its parameters and objectives? The absence of a clear answer only reflects, at a practical level, the incoherence that exists at the conceptual level in American strategy. The danger is that Syria will play multiple US interlocutors off against one another while cultivating more sympathetic advocates, in that way shaping the Obama administration’s engagement process to its advantage.

In that context, Kerry’s statements during his trip were hardly reassuring. “The two countries have obviously been pushed somewhat together by the events of the last years,” said the senator, describing the relationship between Syria and Iran. “My hope is that we can offer a better alternative, a better set of choices.” The rhetoric of the Damascus summit, he added, said “more of President Ahmadinejad than the intentions of President Assad. We need to keep the door open.”

Kerry’s comments reflected a chronic delusion regarding Syria. The believers view Assad as the perpetual potential ally who just needs the right incentive – “a better alternative,” as Kerry put it – to become Washington’s partner. The yearning for hope can be so severe that reality is altered to sustain the mirage. Kerry evinced another symptom of this at a Senate hearing last week when he praised Damascus for supporting the Arab League’s decision to back renewed Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. In reality, the Syrians had done precisely the opposite.

In Kerry’s case, the Syria fantasy is apparently exacerbated by an infatuation with Asma al-Assad. It is known around Washington that the senator and his wife are enthralled with the London-educated Asma, the kinder, gentler face of the Syrian regime. This has perhaps made the Kerrys fall more easily for the line that Bashar al-Assad himself is really, at heart, nothing more than a Western-oriented progressive just waiting for a helping hand to align his country with the United States.

Not surprisingly, long before last week the Syrians had identified Kerry as an influential ally in an otherwise hostile or indifferent Congress. As Republicans are beginning to voice objections to the White House’s decision to return an ambassador to Damascus, Kerry, as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, will be vital in smoothly pushing the confirmation through. Kerry’s thwarted desire to be Barack Obama’s secretary of state is no secret, nor is his rivalry with Hillary Clinton.

A year ago, Kerry visited Damascus as part of a regional tour, a trip that just happened to coincide with Clinton’s first visit to the region. Kerry declared upon his return that Assad was “willing to do the things that he needs to do in order to change his relationship with the United States… I will encourage the administration to take him up on it.”

Kerry’s ambition affords the Syrians an opportunity to use him as an alternative interlocutor to the secretary of state, whom they view with suspicion. “Some say that even Hilary Clinton does not support Obama,” Assad told the American journalist Seymour Hersh in a recent interview.

Kerry’s recent downplaying of Assad’s humiliation of Clinton only added to the insult. And while Clinton sought to minimize the import of returning the US ambassador to Syria, Kerry’s statement actually justified the behavior of Assad, painting him as an innocent victim of Ahmadinejad and someone to whom the United States had to provide an “open door” through which he could “escape.” The administration's scattered responses to Assad's derogatory statements were just as bad.

The emerging picture is of an American Middle East policy in disarray. If nobody has a handle on regional matters, what does that say about Hillary Clinton’s control of policymaking? If Barack Obama sets the agenda, who ensures that everyone stays on message? Indeed, is there a policy, or is what we’re seeing merely a consequence of Washington power plays?

There’s another way to look at it: Syria is so low on the Obama administration’s list of priorities that ambitious actors outside the administration are being allowed to take the lead. The dangers of this are obvious. Syria may ultimately impose the agenda of its own preference, one that just happens to be undermining Washington’s regional interests. Of course, Assad will always have John Kerry on hand to remind him that politics means never having to say you’re sorry.

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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