Kerry Meets Dissenters to His Policy toward Syria ; Foreign Service Officers Urge U.S. Military Action to Help End Long Civil War

By Sanger, David E | International New York Times, June 23, 2016 | Go to article overview

Kerry Meets Dissenters to His Policy toward Syria ; Foreign Service Officers Urge U.S. Military Action to Help End Long Civil War


Sanger, David E, International New York Times


The secretary of state toed the administration's line in a meeting with eight Foreign Service officers who have dissented from President Obama's cautious Syria policy.

The eight midlevel Foreign Service officers stepped into John Kerry's formal outer office at the State Department -- a room that few of them had ever entered before -- to tell him that he was pursuing a path in Syria that would never bring an end to a gruesome civil war.

The argument was not new to Mr. Kerry -- he, in fact, has offered versions of it himself in the Situation Room and the Oval Office. But for half an hour on Tuesday, according to several participants, the secretary of state and the eight officials engaged in a surprisingly cordial conversation about whether there was a way, in the last six months of the Obama presidency, to use American military force to help end a conflict that by some estimates has claimed 500,000 lives.

The eight were among 51 State Department employees who signed a "dissent channel" cable to Mr. Kerry last week, a letter that was leaked so quickly that it appeared clearly intended to send a message to President Obama that his own diplomats could not back his cautious policy.

Mr. Kerry, several participants said, was careful to never explicitly agree with their critique, or let on that he, too, has argued that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria will continue to bomb, starve and blockade his own people unless negotiations are backed by some form of military pressure.

But Mr. Kerry also gently pushed and probed, seeming to imply that many of the dissenters' concerns had been considered many times before and rejected because they were more complicated than they appeared.

Hours before the meeting, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. seemed annoyed at a mention of the dissent cable, sounding a similar note on "CBS This Morning" that all the ideas proposed by the young diplomats had been looked at long ago. "There is not a single, solitary recommendation that I saw that has a single, solitary answer attached to it -- how to do what they're talking about," Mr. Biden said.

"The president's been fastidious," Mr. Biden told Charlie Rose. "Calls the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the intelligence community, the director of central intelligence, the C.I.A., etc. 'Tell me what will work. Will this work?' And the answer has repeatedly been, 'No."'

With only two of his aides in the room (and his Labrador retriever, Ben, who has attended delicate diplomatic meetings more than many assistant secretaries of state), Mr. …

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