Frantic diplomacy seems to have forestalled US military action in Syria – for now. But we stumbled into negotiations at the last minute, only after President Obama had threatened strikes and asked for a vote authorizing the use of force, when Secretary of State John Kerry made an off-the-cuff, off-message remark.
The confusion of the past week is just the latest example of an abiding problem, one that’s tripped America up not just in Syria but in Afghanistan and Iraq – and even, arguably, in cyberspace: The strength and size of the Department of Defense, and the weakness of civilian agencies, drives policymakers towards using the armed forces to solve every problem. It puts a heavy burden on the military that it’s generally eager to shake off, and it often militarizes US foreign policy. But when all you have is a hammer and a couple of broken screwdrivers, everything looks like a nail.
“The current Syria crisis shows that when the president asks for options, the National Security Advisor dialed up the Secretary of Defense and the options were prepared at a planning cell in Tampa, Florida, at CENTCOM headquarters,” Amb. Lincoln Bloomfield told me. (Bloomfield has served under several Republican administrations in the Defense and State Departments and now chairs the board at the Stimson Center). “So instead of a political strategy to [secretly] induce Bashar al-Assad and his inner circle to leave the country in order to save themselves, [the] war crime prosecutions that the Arab League called for and the US could be leading, and information campaigns that would add significant momentum to the people who started this … none of this could come out of a military planning cell, so the president got 100 percent military options.”
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