Saturday, February 9, 2013

Syria: 'Cautious Engagement'

"With the confirmation process of Senator Hagel as Secretary of Defense and John Brennan as Director of Central Intelligence still not complete, the Washington foreign policy community remains turned inward.  Secretary of State Kerry is following an active program of briefings and telephone exchanges with his foreign partners.  Nonetheless, the atmosphere is one of suspended animation while the Administration reviews the direction it wishes to take.  The discussion over the use of drones to carry out counter-terrorist assassinations, including of American citizens, illustrates the point. Our contacts at the White House, the Pentagon and the intelligence community leave no doubt that drones will remain the weapon of choice. They are seen as a low-cost, low-risk substitute for boots on the ground. Nonetheless, a legal and political debate is now raging in Washington in a effort to establish protocols for their use. As one Pentagon official commented privately to us: "the domestic debate along with growing UN interest in this subject could curtail some of our options." Syria is another example of action on hold while the inter-agency debate continues. As we reported last year, we still see the White House as vetoing anything other than a very cautious engagement in the war there.  The US remains in the background, even as the gains from the Arab Spring appear to be reversing themselves in Tunisia and Egypt. A more active diplomatic tempo, by contrast, may be seen in East Asia.  A flurry of senior US exchanges is underway to moderate tensions between China and Japan. US officials do not see these as at crisis levels – at least not yet. They hold Beijing responsible for exploiting its territorial disputes with Tokyo to fan anti-Japanese feelings among the Chinese people. All of this is engendering an increasingly wary assessment of Chinese strategic objectives.  Finally, in the run up to renewed talks with Iran later this month, the Administration has toughened sanctions.  Our conversations at the State Department make it clear that neither Washington nor Tehran sees any breakthrough coming from the talks.  President Obama’s forthcoming visit to Israel will keep any military action on hold."

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