The ‘Dissent’ Memo That Isn’t

The major U.S. media touts a State Department “dissent cable” urging military strikes on the Syrian military as a brave act by 51 diplomats, but it actually matches the views of Secretary Kerry and other top officials, notes Gareth Porter.

By Gareth Porter

The memorandum by 51 State Department officials calling for U.S. military intervention in Syria has been treated in news media coverage as a case of “dissent” from existing Syria policy by individual officials involved in Syria policy.

But the memo has all the earmarks of an initiative that had the blessing of the most senior officials in the department – including Secretary of State John Kerry himself – rather than having been put together by individual officials entirely on their own. And it may mark the beginning of an effort to take advantage of the presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Aug. 30, 2013, claims to have proof that the Syrian government was responsible for a chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21, but that evidence failed to materialize or was later discredited. [State Department photo]

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Aug. 30, 2013, claims to have proof that the Syrian government was responsible for a chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21, but that evidence failed to materialize or was later discredited. [State Department photo]

The memo called for a “more militarily assertive US role” in the Syrian conflict in the form of “a judicious use of stand-off and air weapons, which would undergird and drive a more focused and hard-nosed US-led diplomatic process.  That is precisely the policy option that Secretary of State Kerry has been widely reported to have championed privately for years. As the story in the New York Times, which published the supposedly confidential memo, noted, “[H]igher-level State Department officials are known to share their concerns.”

The submission of the memo through the State Department’s “dissent channel” appears to have been a device to make it appear entirely independent of senior officials in the department. According to the State Department regulation on the “dissent channel,” it is to be used only when dissenting views “cannot be communicated in a full and timely manner through regular operating channels or procedures” or “in a manner which protects the author from any penalty, reprisal, or recrimination.”

But there is no reason to believe that the officials in question had any problem in expressing their views on Obama’s Syria policy over the years. The names of the signatories were not included in the document published by the New York Times, but all 51 officials claimed to have been directly involved in the making or implementation of Syria policy, according to the report. That would certainly encompass the vast majority of those who have worked on Syria over the past five years. It is inconceivable that those officials have not participated in innumerable policy discussions on Syria in which their personal views were freely expressed.

The Kerry Line

The supposed dissenters knew very well, moreover, that Kerry has been advocating essentially the same policy they were articulating for years. Kerry began making the case for sending large-scale, heavy weapons to armed opposition groups and carrying out cruise missile strikes against the Assad regime’s air force in 2013. He continued to advocate that military option in meetings with the President, only to be rebuffed, according to the account by The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg published in April.

President Obama and King Salman Arabia stand at attention during the U.S. national anthem as the First Lady stands in the background with other officials on Jan. 27, 2015, at the start of Obama’s State Visit to Saudi Arabia. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza). (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Obama and King Salman Arabia stand at attention during the U.S. national anthem as the First Lady stands in the background with other officials on Jan. 27, 2015, at the start of Obama’s State Visit to Saudi Arabia. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza). (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Obama became so irritated by Kerry’s recommendations for cruise missile strikes in Syria that he decreed that only the Secretary of Defense would be permitted to recommend the use of force.

Since mid-2013, Kerry has been the leading figure in a political-bureaucratic coalition favoring a more aggressive military and covert action role in Syria. The coalition also includes the CIA’s National Clandestine Services and civilian leaders in the Pentagon who are loath to see the United States cooperating with Russia and relying on its military power in Syria.

The arguments made by the purported dissenters are in line with some of Kerry’s public talking points. Although he has not call for U.S. attacks on Assad’s forces explicitly, Kerry has strongly hinted that there is little or no hope for progress in the political talks on Syria without some U.S. leverage on Assad. The memo sounds the same theme: “While the regime maintains the advantage,” the authors aver, “an undeterred [Assad] will resist compromises sought by almost all opposition factions and regional actors.”

Kerry frequently reiterates in public statements that the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or Daesh) cannot be defeated as long as long as Assad remains in power. The memo echoes his argument, asserting: “The prospects for rolling back Daesh’s hold on territory are bleak without the Sunni Arabs, who the regime continues to bomb and starve.”

The Nusra Question

The memo presents missile strikes as a way of responding to Assad’s “egregious violations of the ceasefire.” The idea that Assad is responsible for the breakdown of the ceasefire, which ignores the well-documented fact that many of the groups that Kerry calls the “legitimate opposition” openly sided with al-Nusra Front (Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate) in deliberately and massively breaking the ceasefire, is also part of the Kerry State Department public posture.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The memo never even mentions the problem of al-Nusra Front and the risk that the use of U.S. force to change the military balance between the opposition and the regime would risk an ultimate victory by the jihadists.

One point in the memo sounds very much like an argument intended to be leaked to the media in order to dramatize the case for war against the Assad regime. “None of us see or has seen merit in a large-scale US invasion of Syria or the sudden collapse of existing Syrian institutions,” it says.

Since no one in the administration is advocating a “large-scale US invasion” or the “sudden collapse” of the Syrian state, that sentence was clearly calculated to influence public opinion rather than to convince anyone in the State Department of the need for the use of force.

Kerry made no effort to hide his pleasure with the “Dissent Memo,” telling a reporter on June 20 that the memo was “good” and that he intended to meet with its authors. His spokesman John Kirby said he would not characterize Kerry’s comments as “indicative of a full-throated endorsement of his views” in the memo – an obvious hint that it was consistent with Kerry’s views.

Kirby went on to say that State Department is “discussing other alternatives, other options, mindful … that the current approach is, without question, struggling.” After Kerry’s meeting with 10 members of the group on June 21, Kirby refused to say whether Kerry agreed with the signatories, citing the need “to respect the confidentiality” of the “dissent channel” process.

Clinton Group Backs Memo

The leak of the memo coincided with the advocacy of the same military option by a Washington think tank with ties to Hillary Clinton. On June 16, the very day the New York Times published the story of the leaked memo by State Department officials, the Center for New American Security (CNAS) released a report on a study group on defeating the Islamic State that called for a U.S. policy to “threaten and execute limited strikes against the Assad regime,” to signal to Assad as well Russia and Iran that it is “willing to get more engaged.” The same report called for dispatching “several thousand” U.S. troops to Syria.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressing the AIPAC conference in Washington D.C. on March 21, 2016. (Photo credit: AIPAC)

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressing the AIPAC conference in Washington D.C. on March 21, 2016. (Photo credit: AIPAC)

The study group was co-chaired by CNAS co-founder Michele Flournoy, formerly third-ranked Defense Department official, although the report was written by lower-level CNAS staff members. Since leaving the Obama administration in 2009, Flournoy has been critical of its defense policy and is now regarded as the most likely choice for Defense Secretary in a Hillary Clinton administration.

Clinton is clearly sympathetic to the military option in the leaked memo. The timing of the appearance of both documents immediately after Clinton had clinched the nomination suggests that the bureaucratic figures behind the push for a new war in Syria are seeking to take advantage of the Clinton presidential run to build public support for that option.

Gareth Porteis an independent investigative journalist and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism. He is the author of the newly published Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare. [This article originally appeared at Middle East Eye, http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/syria-dissent-memo-and-us-bureaucratic-pressure-strategy-440534043]

image_pdfimage_print

23 comments for “The ‘Dissent’ Memo That Isn’t

  1. F. G. Sanford
    June 29, 2016 at 10:36 am

    “Kerry frequently reiterates in public statements that the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or Daesh) cannot be defeated as long as long as Assad remains in power. The memo echoes his argument, asserting: “The prospects for rolling back Daesh’s hold on territory are bleak…”

    Well, of course, that’s an eminently true statement. ISIS is logistically supported through the Jarablus Corridor by Turkey. It is financially supported by the Saudis and Qattaris. Israel has a vested interest in Assad’s defeat. So of coarse, none of that support will be withdrawn until Kerry’s “silent partners” in the “ISIS Alliance Project” decide that it is no longer a prudent investment. ISIS is like a neocon slot-machine. It may never pay off, but they’ve pumped in too many quarters to just walk away. Now, in frustration, they’re considering Nuremberg Principle violations to protect their investment. Kinda like…walking into a Las Vegas casino with a crowbar, and thinking…”Nobody will notice.”

    • July 11, 2016 at 1:13 pm

      Exactly. A memo circulated by Fifty one unidentified zio-lackeys – also known as “diplomats”.

  2. Dfnslblty
    June 29, 2016 at 10:40 am

    Leaked “memo” reads like a coup-in-the-making; “politely” circumventing potus.
    Indict, impeach and deport the Ayn-al Retentives: Mitch, Paul, et alia . . . .

  3. Abe
    June 29, 2016 at 11:08 am

    Likudniks left and right are all in for U.S. policy to threaten and execute strikes against the Assad regime.

    Yes indeed, Israel is getting even more engaged.

    It is important to note that “several thousand” Al-Qaeda troops have already been dispatched to Syria via NATO ally Turkey and via Jordan with Israeli support.

    Regardless of the name du jour, the ISIS and al-Nusra song remains the same: terror.

    More on the Center for a New American Security (CNAS)
    http://rightweb.irc-online.org/profile/center_for_a_new_american_security/

    Commenting on CNAS’s role in Washington discourse on security policy, Kelley Beaucar Vlahos wrote in The American Conservative, “COIN today is the realm of CNAS, as if Frederick Kagan and AEI had never existed. But it won’t do to deny the family resemblance, says retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor: ‘You will hear the same things at the Center for a New American Security as you will at the American Enterprise Institute. Nation-building at gunpoint, democracy at gunpoint. What’s the difference?’”

    Another commentator, Andrew Bacevich, a generally conservative scholar who was a vocal critic of neoconservative influence in the George W. Bush administration, also finds similarities between CNAS and groups like AEI. Wrote Vladhos, “Adherents of the old neoconservative vision and these new security policymakers all ‘drank the Kool-Aid,’ said Boston University Professor Andrew Bacevich. … Both groups, he added, see war as ‘a perpetual condition,’ employing massive firepower and boots on the ground, draining ‘billions, if not trillions of dollars,’ in pursuit of goals based on skewed assumptions about American interests abroad.”

  4. Joe Tedesky
    June 29, 2016 at 11:11 am

    Yet, Obama is still going to campaign for Hillary, no wonder Michele doesn’t like that woman. As far as Kerry goes, suit him up in his PT Boat gear, and send him into the fight…it won’t be too bad for him, I’m sure our military still puts Heinz ketchup out on the tables.

  5. SFOMARCO
    June 29, 2016 at 12:16 pm

    “While the regime maintains the advantage,” the authors aver, “an undeterred [Assad] will resist compromises sought by almost all opposition factions and regional actors.”

    Just what compromises are “Opposition Factions” seeking? And why should “Regional Actors” be allowed to make any compromise demands regarding a civil war?

  6. Jay
    June 29, 2016 at 2:15 pm

    Well the “dissent” is dissent from Obama’s basic position, of why make matters worse.

    Of course it’s a plea to the hawkidiots (Nuland) around Hillary. I’m sure these “diplomats” want Obama to take the plunge so it’s a done deal whoever gets elected in Nov.

    • Susan
      July 5, 2016 at 4:17 pm

      Good assessment.

  7. Joe B
    June 29, 2016 at 4:11 pm

    I’m quite sure that the “51” letter was a fraud, which is why the State Dept. won’t release or investigate their names. Scammers have recently been using the idea of fifty people as a scare tactic, probably something from the mass media. Apparently there is nothing but someone’s assertion in the memo that there was anyone else involved. This could have been written by Kerry himself or a secretary, or any warmonger pretending that he has support. The fact that it was released without so much as an investigation of authenticity argues strongly that it was a Kerry gambit. Most likely there is plenty of opposition to that view at State, and the scammer wanted to trick the public to think the opposite. Devotion to democracy and informed debate is just overflowing there.

    • Susan
      July 5, 2016 at 4:19 pm

      Another good assessment.

  8. Bart
    June 29, 2016 at 4:15 pm

    A “more militarily assertive US role” – Did that used to be “mission creep”?

    • SFOMARCO
      June 29, 2016 at 6:01 pm

      ““None of us see or has seen merit in a large-scale US invasion” … {only a} “a judicious use of stand-off and air weapons…” – FAB 51 memo
      ‘The {CNAC} report called for dispatching “several thousand” U.S. troops to Syria.’

      Mission Creep, indeed…

  9. Tristan
    June 29, 2016 at 6:56 pm

    Who said we wouldn’t be proud of such proclamations made by the Foreign Minister Ribbentrop in support of our true imperial design? Oops, wrong warmongering time, must have suffered deja vous of some sort.

    • SFOMARCO
      June 29, 2016 at 7:32 pm

      How did Kerry morph into KerRybentrop after his 1971 testimony before the US Senate??!!??

  10. Joe Tedesky
    June 29, 2016 at 11:14 pm

    Thierry Meyssan from Voltairenet is saying that the Brexit is the beginning of the end of the EU and NATO. Meyssan, sees the decline of the U.S., with Europe finally getting tired of towing the line for the Yankee empire.

    http://www.voltairenet.org/article192607.html

    • Tristan
      June 30, 2016 at 12:22 am

      I tend to think that no matter how the relationship of the nations of Europe are defined or redefined regarding membership in the EU, there is a greater power, NATO.

      One Ring to rule them all. One Ring to find them,
      One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

      NATO is this ring worn by the Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die, (I know the number isn’t correct, however the point…) the Europeans, and the One is worn by the US. And with this ring the US does rule them.

      • Rikhard Ravindra Tanskanen
        June 30, 2016 at 3:40 pm

        Who are the Three Rings, and the Seven Rings, and Gollum and Bilbo who had the One Ring, and Smaug who consumed one of the Seven? Sorry for not sounding serious, but I wonder who are the equivalents, if there are any.

  11. Bill Bodden
    June 29, 2016 at 11:44 pm

    Presumably, most, if not all, of these people pushing to escalate the fighting in Syria were in favor of the war on Iraq that has led, as many warned, to chaos throughout the Middle East. They should have been exiled to Guantanamo for this monstrous blunder. Instead, they are touting a solution to the war in Syria. That’s like asking the mechanic who ruined one of the family cars to work on another.

    • Tristan
      June 30, 2016 at 12:08 am

      An interesting aside; you note that none are punished nor even held to the slightest account for failures and outright lies, they are promoted, given positions of influence, and honorary degrees, feted on the Shinning City upon the Hill, the exceptional and indispensable. Failure has no cost as long as you tow the imperial line.

      However, my point is this, https://www.rt.com/news/348885-baltic-fleet-command-suspended/ The Russians are acutely aware of the mounting threats to their nation. The history of Russia only reinforces this reality. Thus when capable leaders are needed those who fall short will not be tolerated. While the US and NATO poke the bear and are motivated by profits, the Russians are motivated by self preservation.

      • Bill Bodden
        June 30, 2016 at 3:09 pm

        …the Russians are motivated by self preservation.

        So are our leaders. The difference is our controlling plutocrats and oligarchs are interested in self preservation for themselves with minimal concern for the nation and its people while the Russians appear to be more focused on preservation of their nation. No doubt there are Russians, like our One Percent and their enablers, thinking mainly of themselves, but for most the national interest appears to come first.

  12. Tristan
    June 29, 2016 at 11:47 pm

    As implied by this article the political wheels are spinning with a centrifugal force which allows them, like little hurricanes, to slice through any rational policies which might require true diplomacy. The “dissent letter,” passively if not implicitly (via his stated position re: Syria) endorsed by Sec. Kerry, reveals that the US is not capable of negotiations nor has individuals in positions of importance with the capacity for real diplomacy. All is only recognized as a zero sum game, defined by the rules of unregulated globalized free market capitalism.

    Thus we see the familiar refrain that force must be used to motivate the target to negotiate under terms pre-imposed by the US hegemon. The hubris of this document (the dissent letter) and the acquiescence of those in positions of political power to the sentiments contained therein, indicate, or possibly more accurately augur, that the winds do indeed blow something wicked this way.

  13. incontinent reader
    July 1, 2016 at 12:57 am

    The inferences this reader draws are:

    1) this ‘memo’ by the ‘Nefarious 51’ wasn’t intended as a ‘confidential dissent memo’ at all, but rather a lobbying proposal in contravention of the President’s expressed policy on this matter, indeed, one that the signers INTENDED to publish and/or knew it would be published; nor was their publication a whistleblower disclosure- it didn’t reveal official crimes or wrongdoing, but, instead, advocated committing them- i.e., for an intensified aggressive war, in contravention of international law- that would kill, maim and destroy many more Syrians and much more Syrian infrastructure. Pure and simple, the diplomats violated the dissent channel protocols, and, as such, should have been disciplined instead of coddled by Kerry.

    2) these ‘diplomats’ revealed themselves to be neoconservative/neo-liberal interventionist advocates of a policies urged for years upon the United States by Israel and its lobbyists- and their memo made clear (although everyone already knew it, but was barred from saying it) that the State Department years ago purged its Arabists, and replaced them with pro-Israeli policymakers- Indyk, Ross, Edelman, et. al.- and more recently, the nefarious Robert Ford, who, with all of the slime spread all over him, hopefully, will be pilloried by some enterprising investigative journalist. And more recently, it was only too obvious when the lobby successfully ganged up on Chas Freeman after he was chosen to chair the National Intelligence Council. Losing Freeman, who was one our finest diplomats – ever – (and you can read his ADST oral history if you want to find out more about what he achieved for our country) was a tragedy and an embarrassment, and AIPAC’s efforts were clearly antithetical, and did damage to our national interests.

    • Susan
      July 5, 2016 at 11:17 pm

      Chas Freeman would have been excellent.

Comments are closed.