Hussain Abdul-Hussain, April 23, 2010
Those who know Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Jeffrey Feltman know that this skilled diplomat has a personal bias toward Lebanon’s sovereignty, independence and freedom.
Being supportive of Lebanon is one thing, but defending whatever the administration decides is another.
At a hearing before the Congressional Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia yesterday, the former US ambassador to Lebanon faced some tough questioning and was for once on the back foot.
Naturally, Congress focused its attack on Washington’s decision to send Robert Ford as ambassador to Damascus.
Feltman argued that since February 26, the State Department has summoned Syrian diplomats – including Ambassador Imad Mustafa – on four occasions to voice its displeasure over Syria’s alleged policy of arming Hezbollah. Mustafa denies he was ever summoned, which made Feltman conclude that Mustafa was either not listening, or did not communicate the details of the meeting to Damascus. Feltman added that in the Arab world, officials tend to keep bad news from their bosses.
As such, he argued, sending a US ambassador back to Syria was imperative. The US needs to have the ear of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who until now has been making grave errors because he has been listening, Feltman argued, to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Those who have been following the Middle East long enough might remember that during one of his trials, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein asked the judge whether he thought of him as being a beast. “No, but those around you made you one,” the judge told Saddam.
The assumption is therefore that Assad is all sweet and full of good intentions, rendering the three-decade confrontation between Damascus and Washington a mere misunderstanding in communication.
But contrary to what Feltman implied, Mustafa is not dumb. Mustafa the listener in private is different from Mustafa the troublemaker in real life. The real Mustafa, like his boss Assad, is not interested in what America has to tell him.
After receiving Ahmadinejad and Nasrallah in early spring, Assad mocked US demands that he distance himself from them. In response, the State Department’s number two, Jim Steinberg, dismissed Assad’s remarks, saying they were “theatrical” and that what counts was Assad’s behavior. But if Assad can be “theatrical”, what makes Feltman believe that Mustafa cannot be as “theatrical”?
In short, as intelligent as he is, Feltman could not defend the US strategy on Syria, assuming Washington actually has one.
During a recent panel at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), America’s top columnists, Thomas Friedman of the New York Timesand David Ignatius of the Washington Post, debated foreign policy. While Friedman argued that he was not sure any American was in charge of a Middle East policy, Ignatius said there was someone. “His name is Barack Obama.”
If Ignatius is right, it means that Feltman was reiterating talking points on Syria that he had received from above, perhaps from Obama himself. But what is Barack Obama’s strategy on Syria and the Middle East? He does not have one. The memo by Defense Secretary Robert Gates saying that America has no strategy on Iran affirms this view. Obama has no policy on Iran, Syria, Israel or the rest of the world.
Unlike American presidents since World War II, Obama does not believe the US should run the world. Focused on domestic issues, this president thinks foreign policy is a mere tool to serve domestic interests. As such, the world only matters to Obama as long as there are no more suicide bombers heading for American cities.
This means that American foreign policy today has only two czars: CENTCOM Commander David Petraeus, who is in charge of chasing al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and elsewhere, and Daniel Benjamin, Director of the unit for Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) at the State Department. Benjamin has visited Damascus. Petraeus might be on his way.
Since Obama’s sole interest in Syria is its cooperation over CVE, a term that has replaced “Islamist radicalism”, America is not interested in elaborating a full strategy on Damascus or its behavior.
In the absence of such a strategy, Washington’s parties compete to impose their different agendas. In the case of Syria, hardcore pro-Assad senators John Kerry and Arlen Specter both have Obama’s ear, and, ergo, Damascus gets its way in Washington.
Scuds to Hezbollah or no Scuds. It makes no difference. America has no vision for the Middle East. Until a policy on Syria is drafted, Washington will be improvising on how to deal with Damascus, and Jeff Feltman will sound shaky on the Hill.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a visiting fellow at Chatham House and a correspondent for Al-Rai newspaper.