Hillary Clinton and Her Hawks
August 1, 2016
Gareth Porter / Consortium News & Patrick Tucker / Defense One
Focusing on domestic issues, Hillary Clinton's acceptance speech sidestepped the deep concerns anti-war Democrats have about her hawkish foreign policy, which is already taking shape in the shadows as her advisers are already recommending air strikes and other new military measures to topple the Assad regime in Syria.
Hillary Clinton and Her Hawks
Gareth Porter / Consortium News
(July 29, 2016) -- As Hillary Clinton begins her final charge for the White House, her advisers are already recommending air strikes and other new military measures against the Assad regime in Syria.
The clear signals of Clinton's readiness to go to war appears to be aimed at influencing the course of the war in Syria as well as US policy over the remaining six months of the Obama administration. (She also may be hoping to corral the votes of Republican neoconservatives concerned about Donald Trump's "America First" foreign policy.)
Last month, the think tank run by Michele Flournoy, the former Defense Department official considered to be most likely to be Clinton's choice to be Secretary of Defense, explicitly called for "limited military strikes" against the Assad regime.
And earlier this month Leon Panetta, former Defense Secretary and CIA Director, who has been advising candidate Clinton, declared in an interview that the next president would have to increase the number of Special Forces and carry out air strikes to help "moderate" groups against President Bashal al-Assad. (When Panetta gave a belligerent speech at the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday night, he was interrupted by chants from the delegates on the floor of "no more war!"
Flournoy co-founded the Center for New American Security (CNAS) in 2007 to promote support for US war policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, and then became Under Secretary of Defense for Policy in the Obama administration in 2009.
Flournoy left her Pentagon position in 2012 and returned to CNAS as Chief Executive Officer. She has been described by ultimate insider journalist David Ignatius of the Washington Post, as being on a "short, short list" for the job Secretary of Defense in a Clinton administration.
Last month, CNAS published a report of a "Study Group" on military policy in Syria on the eve of the organization's annual conference. Ostensibly focused on how to defeat the Islamic State, the report recommends new US military actions against the Assad regime.
Flournoy chaired the task force, along with CNAS president Richard Fontaine, and publicly embraced its main policy recommendation in remarks at the conference.
She called for "using limited military coercion" to help support the forces seeking to force President Assad from power, in part by creating a "no bombing" zone over those areas in which the opposition groups backed by the United States could operate safely.
In an interview with Defense One, Flournoy described the no-bomb zone as saying to the Russian and Syrian governments, "If you bomb the folks we support, we will retaliate using standoff means to destroy [Russian] proxy forces, or, in this case, Syrian assets." That would "stop the bombing of certain civilian populations," Flournoy said.
In a letter to the editor of Defense One, Flournoy denied having advocated "putting US combat troops on the ground to take territory from Assad's forces or remove Assad from power," which she said the title and content of the article had suggested.
But she confirmed that she had argued that "the US should under some circumstances consider using limited military coercion -- primarily trikes using standoff weapons -- to retaliate against Syrian military targets" for attacks on civilian or opposition groups "and to set more favorable conditions on the ground for a negotiated political settlement."
Renaming a 'No-Fly' Zone
The proposal for a "no bombing zone" has clearly replaced the "no fly zone," which Clinton has repeatedly supported in the past as the slogan to cover a much broader US military role in Syria.
Panetta served as Defense Secretary and CIA Director in the Obama administration when Clinton was Secretary of State, and was Clinton's ally on Syria policy. On July 17, he gave an interview to CBS News in which he called for steps that partly complemented and partly paralleled the recommendations in the CNAS paper.
"I think the likelihood is that the next president is gonna have to consider adding additional special forces on the ground," Panetta said, "to try to assist those moderate forces that are taking on ISIS and that are taking on Assad's forces."
Panetta was deliberately conflating two different issues in supporting more US Special Forces in Syria. The existing military mission for those forces is to support the anti-ISIS forces made up overwhelmingly of the Kurdish YPG and a few opposition groups.
Neither the Kurds nor the opposition groups the Special Forces are supporting are fighting against the Assad regime. What Panetta presented as a need only for additional personnel is in fact a completely new US mission for Special Forces of putting military pressure on the Assad regime.
He also called for increasing "strikes" in order to "put increasing pressure on ISIS but also on Assad." That wording, which jibes with the Flournoy-CNAS recommendation, again conflates two entirely different strategic programs as a single program.
The Panetta ploys in confusing two separate policy issues reflects the reality that the majority of the American public strongly supports doing more militarily to defeat ISIS but has been opposed to US war against the government in Syria.
A poll taken last spring showed 57 percent in favor of a more aggressive US military force against ISIS. The last time public opinion was surveyed on the issue of war against the Assad regime, however, was in September 2013, just as Congress was about to vote on authorizing such a strike.
At that time, 55 percent to 77 percent of those surveyed opposed the use of military force against the Syrian regime, depending on whether Congress voted to authorize such a strike or to oppose it.
Shaping the Debate
It is highly unusual, if not unprecedented, for figures known to be close to a presidential candidate to make public recommendations for new and broader war abroad. The fact that such explicit plans for military strikes against the Assad regime were aired so openly soon after Clinton had clinched the Democratic nomination suggests that Clinton had encouraged Flournoy and Panetta to do so.
The rationale for doing so is evidently not to strengthen her public support at home but to shape the policy decisions made by the Obama administration and the coalition of external supporters of the armed opposition to Assad.
Obama's refusal to threaten to use military force on behalf of the anti-Assad forces or to step up military assistance to them has provoked a series of leaks to the news media by unnamed officials -- primarily from the Defense Department -- criticizing Obama's willingness to cooperate with Russia in seeking a Syrian ceasefire and political settlement as "naïve."
The news of Clinton's advisers calling openly for military measures signals to those critics in the administration to continue to push for a more aggressive policy on the premise that she will do just that as president.
Even more important to Clinton and close associates, however, is the hope of encouraging Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have been supporting the armed opposition to Assad, to persist in and even intensify their efforts in the face of the prospect of US-Russian cooperation in Syria.
Even before the recommendations were revealed, specialists on Syria in Washington think tanks were already observing signs that Saudi and Qatari policymakers were waiting for the Obama administration to end in the hope that Clinton would be elected and take a more activist role in the war against Assad.
The new Prime Minister of Turkey, Binali Yildirim, however, made a statement on July 13 suggesting that Turkish President Recep Yayyip Erdogan may be considering a deal with Russia and the Assad regime at the expense of both Syrian Kurds and the anti-Assad opposition.
That certainly would have alarmed Clinton's advisers, and four days later, Panetta made his comments on network television about what "the next president" would have to do in Syria.
Gareth Porter is 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.
Hillary Clinton's Likely Defense Secretary
Wants More US Troops Fighting ISIS and Assad
Patrick Tucker / Defense One
(June 20, 2016) -- The woman expected to run the Pentagon under Hillary Clinton said she would direct US troops to push President Bashar al-Assad's forces out of southern Syria and would send more American boots to fight the Islamic State in the region.
Michele Flournoy, formerly the third-ranking civilian in the Pentagon under President Barack Obama, called for "limited military coercion" to help remove Assad from power in Syria, including a "no bombing" zone over parts of Syria held by US-backed rebels.
Flournoy, and several of her colleagues at the Center for New American Security, or CNAS, have been making the case for sending more American troops into combat against ISIS and the Assad regime than the Obama administration has been willing to commit.
Since Russia's increased involvement, the facts on the ground in Syria, she said, "Do not support the kind of negotiated conditions we would like to get to." US policy should be the removal of Assad even if that meant "using limited military coercion," Flournoy said, at Monday's annual CNAS conference in Washington.
What might that look like?
Last week, three CNAS authors, in a new report, call for the United States to "go beyond the current Cessation of Hostilities." The United States should press Syria and Russia to agree "not to treat the Southern Front as an extremist group and to cease air attacks on the territory it controls," wrote Ilan Goldenberg, Paul Scharre, and Nicholas Heras.
CNAS says those views are not the entire organization's, but noted the report was "informed by deliberations of CNAS' ISIS Study Group, chaired by CNAS CEO Michèle Flournoy and CNAS President Richard Fontaine," a former foreign policy advisor to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
If Syria's bombing continues, the United States should consider instituting what the paper dubs a "no bomb zone." If the Assad regime bombs areas that are held by the Southern Front, an opposition alliance that the United States supports, then the United States would retaliate, using standoff weapons like cruise missiles to hit targets associated with the Assad regime, but not airbases housing Russian forces.
The retaliatory strikes might include Syrian forward operating bases or "security apparatus facilities in Damascus that are fixed regime targets and would require less invasive reconnaissance."
The targets need not be ones that are directly tied to Assad strikes on US partners, so long as the message is clear to Assad.
"It's not a traditional no-fly zone so you're not having air craft drill holes in the sky. You're not having to take out the entire civilian air defense system," Flournoy told Defense One. She called the bomb zone idea a declaratory policy backed up by the threat of force.
"If you bomb the folks we support, we will retaliate using standoff means to destroy [Russian] proxy forces, or, in this case, Syrian assets." The no bomb zone could "arguably slow the refugee flows. It would stop the bombing of certain civilian populations," she said.
Flournoy called the no-bomb zone worthy of more examination. "The analysis that needs to be done is playing out the concept, two, three and four steps down the road. What if the Russians do test it? What would the response be?" she said.
Flournoy served as Obama's under secretary of defense for policy from 2009 to 2012. On Monday, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius described her as being on "short, short" list for the job. So what would she do in the job?
Last 2015, Flournoy delicately condemned the Obama administration's ISIS policy as ineffectual. "The military dimensions of the strategy have been under-resourced, while many of the non-military lines of operation remain underdeveloped," she wrote.
She outlined several key steps to increase pressure on ISIS. They included: increased numbers of combat missions; embedding US military advisors in the Iraqi Security Forces at the battalion level and allowing them to advise Iraqi commanders during operations; deploying forward air-controllers to call in air support during combat missions; and direct arming of Sunni tribes and the Kurdish Peshmerga.
The strategy would "hold out the prospect that arms will flow through Baghdad if and when the central government establishes a reliable process for their transfer."
In Syria, the United States "should cease its insistence on the Islamic State as the sole target and begin training and equipping moderate opposition fighters who wish to take on the Assad regime as well," she said.
Response from Michele Flournoy
To the Editor of Defense One:
I am writing in response to your piece on June 20 that fundamentally mischaracterized my views on the role US forces should play in Syria. Both the headline and article erroneously suggested that I advocate sending more US troops to "push President Bashar al-Assad's forces out of southern Syria" and "remove Assad from power." I do not.
I have argued for increasing US military support to moderate Syrian opposition groups fighting ISIS and the Assad regime, like the Southern Front, not asking US troops to do the fighting in their stead.
I further argue that the US should under some circumstances consider using limited military coercion -- primarily strikes using standoff weapons -- to retaliate against Syrian military targets in order to stop violations of the Cessation of Hostilities, deter Russian and Syrian bombing of innocent civilians and the opposition groups we support, and set more favorable conditions on the ground for a negotiated political settlement.
In short, I advocate doing more to support our partners on the ground to make them more effective; I do NOT advocate putting US combat troops on the ground to take territory from Assad's forces or remove Assad from power.
-- Michele A. Flournoy
Patrick Tucker is technology editor for Defense One. He's also the author of The Naked Future: What Happens in a World That Anticipates Your Every Move? (Current, 2014). Previously, Tucker was deputy editor for The Futurist for nine years.
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