The problem with US policy in the Middle East is that it now operates almost entirely at the political level: gone are the days when area experts were the heavyweights in the command center, weaving historical context, relationships and nuance into vital policy decisions.
Today you are more likely to have single-issue interest groups, commercial projects and election cycles impact key deliberations. It’s a short-term view: tactical more than strategic and black and white in its approach. Like a high-octane marketing campaign, it is heavily focused on key phrases, scene-setting, and narrative building.
The spotlight on Syria in recent weeks has been intense and the propaganda has been incessant: Regime massacres in Homs, evil Russia and China, a benevolent UN Security Council trying to save Syria, 1982′s Hama slaughter resuscitated, and an American ambassador left “disgusted” at the gall of others using veto power.
But take the hysteria down a notch or two, bring the debate back into the hands of measured, experienced observers, and the storyline may be tangibly different. Over the weekend, I had the privilege of receiving an email that reminded me of a time when area experts at the US State Department delivered honest assessments of events so that wiser decisions could be taken.
The missive was from a former US diplomat with service experience in Syria who has asked to remain unnamed. I am publishing the email below in its entirety for the benefit of readers:
“I have serious problems with all the talk about military intervention in Syria. Everyone, especially the media, seems to be relying solely on anti-regime activists for their information. How do we know 260 people were killed by the regime in Homs yesterday? That number seems based solely on claims by anti-regime figures and I seriously doubt its accuracy.
I served over three years in Damascus at the US Embassy and I know how difficult it is to sort fact from rumor in that closed political society. We were constantly trying to verify rumors that we had heard about assassinations, regime arrests, etc., and that included the Agency, which was just as much in the dark as everyone else. Today, we have a skeleton embassy which I am sure is under constant surveillance and with very few personnel to go out and report on what is happening. When I was in Damascus over two years ago, I was less than impressed with the Embassy’s sources and with its understanding of the dynamics of what was going on Syria. And the same is true when I talk to officials at the State Department. (more…)