Juliette Kayyem

The diplomat

In a post-WikiLeaks world, the US ambassador to Syria is offering unvarnished truth

By Juliette Kayyem
August 15, 2011

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WILL HE or won’t he? The international community of human-rights activists and national-security hardliners wonders whether President Obama will demand an Arab leader’s ouster. Yes, it’s déjà vu all over again. This time it’s Damascus, not Tripoli, and the enemy is Syria’s violent and vicious Bashar al-Assad.

In reality, Obama already has signaled his desire for Assad’s removal. Robert Ford, the career diplomat who is ambassador to Syria, has taken on a unique role for the president. Ford is a diplomat-activist, as candid as the president is circumspect. Assad, he said, is not “in our or [the] Syrian people’s interest.’’ Ford travels to besieged cities to meet with protestors. He says he really doesn’t care what the Syrian government thinks of him. He is rather undiplomatic. And he very well may be the State Department’s first post-WikiLeaks ambassador.

WikiLeaks, with its unauthorized disclosure of thousands of private State Department cables, unleashed a flurry of government complaints that it had undermined trusted and truthful communication among American diplomats about friends and foes. The Obama administration has never wavered from its utter condemnation - replete with a criminal investigation - of the whole affair.

There is no doubt the disclosure of US diplomats’ pithy assessments of foreign leaders’ quirks had the potential to set back sensitive negotiations. But what was amazing about WikiLeaks was how utterly familiar most of the disclosures were. This wasn’t the Pentagon Papers. So, Mexico is losing the war on drugs and the Taliban is making gains throughout Afghanistan. Not so much new there. Indeed, WikiLeaks proved that what diplomats are writing behind foreign leaders’ backs is essentially a more caustic version of what they are saying to their faces.

WikiLeaks confirmed changes in diplomatic strategies that were long in the making. The State Department had already abandoned the notion that the United States could engage another nation by having collegial tea with its prime minister. In a wired world where people, goods, and ideas freely mingle, there is less need for such tea-pouring niceties, along with the notion that winning over one person is the key to good relations. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it, “The diplomatic landscape of the 21st century features an increasingly varied set of actors who influence international debates. . . . US diplomacy must adapt to this landscape.’’ WikiLeaks may have been an outrage to many, but what we read was generally an astute assessment of leadership and nations.

Does anyone actually believe that Syria’s Assad wonders what the White House thinks of him - or that what we think of him actually matters to him? Does he wonder: well, maybe they still buy this whole “reform’’ thing because they haven’t demanded my ouster? The State Department has issued no less than 20 condemnations of Assad. The White House has issued eight similar statements. You would have to be willfully ignorant to think that we don’t have an opinion of Assad.

And those who are calling for Obama to make a more forceful statement are largely the same ones who mock him for not using military action to buttress his words. No wonder Obama’s silence is rather welcoming.

But then there is Ambassador Ford, Obama’s id. Unleashed to say what was already on everyone’s mind, Ford can play a free-wheeling role - dangerous, no doubt - that will be increasingly common for today’s wired diplomats. Leaders can no longer pretend that they control access to information; a diplomat can simply walk outside and learn from the masses, and vice versa.

What we are seeing in Damascus is the unequivocal crackdown by a regime bent on protecting its power. That is hardly a secret. And the failure to officially, in the more formal way Presidents do, call for Assad’s ouster is not because we have hope for Assad’s redemption or that we have no hopes for the Syrian resistance.

It is because, in the real world, nations like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, and China have complicated strategic interests in Syria and it behooves us to properly weigh those interests in order to protect our own. It is because, in the real world that we discovered in Libya, an uprising may be far more complicated than we first believed.

WikiLeaks may have opened up an era of brutally honest diplomacy. In an era of such brutality, it is worth a try.

■ CORRECTION: In my last column, I misstated the name of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.

Juliette Kayyem can be reached at and Twitter @juliettekayyem