In the aftermath of public revelations that the Obama Justice Department snooped on scores of AP journalists and accused Fox News reporter James Rosen of criminal acts for seeking out statements from a State Department official, there is a lot of much-needed talk about the so-called “chilling effect,” especially in the context of the unprecedented number of whistleblowers prosecuted under the 1917 Espionage Act under the Obama administration.
The President’s aggressive tactics in keeping government activity in air-tight secrecy, “creates a serious climate of fear in which investigative journalists are finding it increasingly difficult to do their job — informing citizens about the secret actions of political leaders — because everyone involved in that process is petrified of government persecution,” writes Glenn Greenwald at The New York Times. “As The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer put it in a New Republic article detailing the harm done to journalism: ‘It’s a huge impediment to reporting, and so chilling isn’t quite strong enough, it’s more like freezing the whole process into a standstill.’”
One aspect of this that hasn’t been widely articulated is this Rumsfeldian notion that, in this climate of fear where informative leaks and off-the-record statements are increasingly rare, the American people don’t even know what we don’t know. That is, there could be plenty of national security policies that have a significant or even mostly covert nature to them, but we can’t even determine with much confidence which policies those are.
But if I were to speculate, one of the most likely of these cases is the U.S. approach to Syria.
Enter Harvard professor of international relations Stephen Walt and his latest post at ForeignPolicy.com. He writes that he “wonder[s] whether U.S. involvement in that conflict isn’t more substantial than I have previously thought,” and speculates on what the U.S. is “REALLY doing in Syria.”
Consistent with its buck-passing instincts, Barack Obama’s administration does not want to play a visible role in the conflict. This is partly because Americans are rightly tired of trying to govern war-torn countries, but also because America isn’t very popular in the region and anyone who gets too close to the United States might actually lose popular support. So no boots on the ground, no “no-fly zones,” and no big, highly visible shipments of U.S. arms. Instead, Washington can use Qatar and Saudi Arabia as its middlemen, roles they are all too happy to play for their own reasons.
Since taking office, Obama has shown a marked preference for covert actions that don’t cost too much and don’t attract much publicity, combined with energetic efforts to prosecute leakers. So an energetic covert effort in Syria would be consistent with past practice. Although there have been news reports that the CIA is involved in vetting and/or advising some opposition groups, we still don’t know just how deeply involved the U.S. government is. (There has been a bit of speculation in the blogosphere that the attack on Benghazi involved “blowback” from the Syrian conflict, but I haven’t seen any hard evidence to support this idea.)
In this scenario, the Obama administration may secretly welcome the repeated demands for direct U.S. involvement made by war hawks like Sen. John McCain. Rejecting the hawks’ demands for airstrikes, “no-fly zones,” or overt military aid makes it look like U.S. involvement is actually much smaller than it really is.
Indeed, as I wrote in these spaces almost a year ago:
…my own view is that the Obama administration probably has an expansive covert policy on Syria in place. Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, agrees that “Covert ops [are] ongoing.” This is one of the most secretive administrations in recent memory and the situation in Syria is extraordinarily sensitive and precarious. The notion that Obama is holding off in the clandestine realm of policy is not really credible. Again, [the Syrian conflict] has all the reasons for not intervening attached to it, but if it’s done in secret, the administration can avoid taking responsibility for its actions.
Publicly, Obama has opposed no-fly zones, opposed directly arming the rebels, opposed boots on the ground, etc. Covertly, (although it has been reported in the press, I would guess as a deliberate and authorized leak) the CIA has been facilitating the delivery of arms to rebels through Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
But what else don’t we know? It’s difficult to write about because we just don’t know what we don’t know thanks to the chilling effect Obama’s unprecedented secrecy has had on the press.
There is a tangled proxy war going on in Syria with enormous stakes. In other areas of foreign policy that are even less consequential than the fight in Syria, the record of the Obama administration has been to make it all secret and insulate themselves from any accountability for costs and failures. It’s hardly far-fetched to suspect a similar scenario with respect to Syria.
“I don’t know what the level of U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war really is,” Walt writes. “But that’s what troubles me: I don’t like not knowing what my government is doing…”
Unfortunately, that’s exactly how Obama likes it.