Thinking Aloud: Reflections of Ambassador Robert Ford, Part II

Nov. 14, 2014 by Darius 

[On Wednesday I saw former US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford speak about his experience in public diplomacy.  Ford’s talk was quite interesting and filled with anecdotes and stories from his experiences in the Middle East.  Yesterday, I shared his five lessons about public diplomacy in US foreign policy today.  Today, I’ll bring you some of his other comments.]

  • According to Amb. Ford, the atmosphere of caution after the Benghazi attacks, which resulted in the deaths of the US ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and others, has been very bad for US diplomacy because fewer diplomats are willing to leave their safe havens. While stressing that no one should take “stupid risks,” Amb. Ford said it is the areas with high tension that need public diplomacy the most.  He pointed out that total safety can only come if you don’t go abroad at all.
  • Ford, though, did have some concrete recommendations about threat assessment and response for State Department personnel. First, it is important to be specific about threats.  It isn’t helpful to say “It’s dangerous out there.”  Is it really dangerous everywhere, or just in a few specific places?  Knowing the situation precisely allows diplomatic personnel to carry out their missions without taking stupid risks.  Second, Amb. Ford felt it was very important to listen to what the embassy’s contacts are saying.  For example, before he went to Hama in 2011, Amb. Ford had heard from Syrians and sent some lower-ranking US embassy staff to Hama to ensure that the protests were nonviolent and that the protesters were likely to appreciate Ford’s visit.  Using multiple sources enhances one’s understanding of potential threats.
  • Ford felt that the State Department does not have a political constituency back in the US. That is why it is so difficult for the State Department to get funding for projects like online classes in Algeria even though they generate so much goodwill towards the US.  The Department of Defense, in comparison, does have a large political constituency in the US and has no trouble in securing funding.
  • Speaking about current US policy in the Middle East, Amb. Ford said that the US air campaign against ISIS has helped the Assad regime tremendously. For example, in one place in eastern Syria, ISIS had surrounded a Syrian military base.  US airstrikes hit ISIS, allowing the Syrian military to not only escape but also move its materiel from the east, where they were being used against ISIS, to the Aleppo suburbs, where they were used to attack moderate fighters.  As Ford put it, the US is serving as Assad’s air force.
  • Ford reserved special criticism for the mismanagement of the attacks on the group of fighters known as the Khorasan Group. He explained that while these fighters were good targets and legitimate bad guys, nobody else in Syria knew of them as the Khorasan Group.  Instead, other rebels, including moderates, in the area knew only that the Khorasan Group was playing a key role in fighting Assad’s forces in the area.  When US airstrikes hit the Khorasan Group, these moderate fighters were mystified.  Moreover, the US provided absolutely no warning whatsoever to moderate fighters in the area that Khorasan was a target.  Some moderate fighters were killed by US airstrikes.  Thus, the way the US handled targeting the Khorasan Group ended up ticking off and hurting the very moderates the US ostensibly supports.
  • Turning to Iraq, Amb. Ford was not optimistic about dealing with ISIS. After the US invasion of Iraq, it required 20,000 US soldiers plus an additional 40,000 Iraqi soldiers to seal the Iraq-Syria border—a key element of current anti-ISIS strategy.  Clearly, the Iraqi army will not be able to seal the border with the resources at its disposal anytime in the foreseeable future.
  • Ford also touched on the general troubles of secular parties at the ballot box in the Middle East. During Iraq’s first free election after the US invasion, all the Shia Islamist parties agreed to form a single coalition on the ballot.  By contrast, there were literally 110 different secular parties on the ballot, none of whom agreed to form a coalition with any other.  Not surprisingly, the Islamist bloc won the election handily.  The secular groups will have to learn to cooperate if they are eventually to be an electoral force.

Although Amb. Ford retired from the Foreign Service in February (at least partially due to his opposition to the administration’s Syria policy), after hearing him speak I hope the door is not closed on his returning to public service.

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