Streetwise Professor

October 17, 2015

An Innocent Abroad: Fred Hof and the Intellectual Failure of American Foreign Policy

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 10:05 am

Fred Hof, former “special advisor for transition in Syria at the U.S. Department of State,” has written a self-flaggelating flagellating piece about his-and the United States’-failure in Syria. It is part damning indictment of himself and the State Department, and part damning indictment of Obama.

A recurrent theme-implicit, not explicit-is Hof’s incredible naiveté. He was repeatedly fooled by the man he was supposedly working with-Bashir al-Assad-and the man he was working for-Barack Obama. He was fooled because he romantically projected his own beliefs on them, and because he engaged in wishful thinking, when he would have been better served to live by Lily Tomlin’s credo: “We try to be cynical, but it’s hard to keep up.”

Hof was-and remains-genuinely shocked that Assad reacted brutally to the first outbreak of opposition to his regime:

I did not think it inevitable that Assad—a computer-savvy individual who knew mass murder could not remain hidden from view in the 21st century—would react to peaceful protest as violently as he did, with no accompanying political outreach.

. . . .

By firing on peaceful demonstrators protesting police brutality in the southern Syrian city of Deraa, gunmen of the Syrian security services shredded any claim Assad had to governing legitimately. Indeed, Assad himself—as president of the Syrian Arab Republic and commander in chief of the armed forces—was fully responsible for the shoot-to-kill atrocities.

Hof actually believed that computer savviness was some marker for civilized values? He believed that Assad would actually care if his crimes were witnessed by the world? Cringemaking.

Look. Dictum 1 of the Dictator’s Handbook says, in bold, italicized type: “Every dictator who has attempted ‘political outreach’ to opponents has ended up at the end of a rope or bleeding in the dirt. Crush all dissent mercilessly.”

Furthermore, Hof’s optimistic view was completely oblivious to Syria’s history. In the 1970s and early-1980s, Assad’s father faced an extreme threat from the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood came close to assassinating him, and he responded by extirpating the organization in Syria, most infamously by attacking Hama with armor, artillery, and air power, resulting in the deaths of thousands (which Brotherhood propaganda has succeeded in inflating to 40-50,000). Assad no doubt had intelligence about the resurgence of the MB within Syria, and throughout the Middle East generally. He no doubt understood that the “Arab Spring” was largely the Muslim Brotherhood Spring-something that those in the West generally and the US in particular still fail to grasp. Even if he didn’t know these things, he certainly feared them, and was not going to take any chances that the protests in Deraa were fronting for, or would be exploited by, the Brotherhood.

In other words, the chances he would not have responded to any protest with extreme force were somewhere between zero and none.

But the US, and this administration in particular, not only seems oblivious to the Muslim Brotherhood’s malignity, it actually thinks that it is a progressive force in the Middle East.

Hof also took at face value Assad’s representation that he would sever all ties with Hezbollah in exchange for a return of the Golan heights. This was wishful thinking in the extreme. Just how far did Hof think that the Iranians would let Assad proceed down this path? Iran’s interest in Syria is primarily because it is their vital bridge to Hezbollah. Iran is dedicated to Israel’s destruction. If he had tried to sell out Hezbollah to achieve a deal with Israel, the Iranians would have been in a race with the Brotherhood to kill him.

Indeed, Hof understood this at some level, but chose to ignore it:

Fully complicit in the Assad regime’s impressive portfolio of war crimes and crimes against humanity, Iran relies on its client to secure its overland reach into Lebanon.

As for the man he worked for, Hof reminds me of Flounder in Animal House: “You fucked up! You trusted us!“:

My failure to predict the extent of Syria’s fall was, in large measure, a failure to understand the home team. In August 2011, Barack Obama said Assad should step aside. Believing the president’s words guaranteed decisive follow-up, I told a congressional committee in December 2011 that the regime was a dead man walking. When the president issued his red-line warning, I fearlessly predicted (as a newly private citizen) that crossing the line would bring the Assad regime a debilitating body blow. I still do not understand how such a gap between word and deed could have been permitted. It is an error that transcends Syria.

“Such a gap between word and deed” is the essence of the Obama way. And please. Obama ran in 2008 on disengaging militarily from the Middle East. He ran on the view that US military intervention was inevitably counterproductive. He ran in 2012 bragging about ending the war in Iraq, and took the opportunity to remind the world yet again of his belief of the futility of American military engagement in the Middle East.

You see, there are some words that Obama utters that conform to his deeds almost exactly. The key is understanding which words he means, and which ones he doesn’t. Hof again let his magical thinking delude him into believing that Obama meant the things he said that Hof agreed with, instead of realizing that these words contradicted Obama’s core beliefs, and were uttered for the sole purpose of meeting “a communications challenge: getting Obama on “the right side of history” in terms of his public pronouncements.”

Hof deserves credit for admitting his failures so openly, and I can sympathize on a human level. What is disturbing is that his failure is symptomatic of deeper institutional failures in the United States foreign policy establishment. The examples are many, but Syria alone provides some particularly damning ones. How long has the US been chasing the Assad chimera? Remember Warren Christopher panting after Assad père during the Clinton administration? Nancy Pelosi meeting with and gushing over the Chinless Ophthalmologist in 2007? John Kerry chasing after Assad for years, finally dining with him and his wife in Damascus, then saying this?:

“I have been a believer for some period of time that we could make progress in that relationship,” he said. “And I’m going to continue to work for it and push it.”

In the same year, when he once again wanted to go to Syria, his visit was blocked by the Obama administration.

“President Assad has been very generous with me in terms of the discussions we have had,” he said after his March speech. “And when I last went to – the last several trips to Syria – I asked President Assad to do certain things to build the relationship with the United States and sort of show the good faith that would help us to move the process forward.”

He mentioned some of the requests, including the purchase of land for the US Embassy in Damascus, the opening of an American cultural centre, non-interference in Lebanon’s election and the improvement of ties with Iraq and Bahrain, and said Mr Assad had met each one.

“So my judgment is that Syria will move; Syria will change, as it embraces a legitimate relationship with the United States and the West and economic opportunity that comes with it and the participation that comes with it.”

A few years later, of course, Kerry was comparing Assad to Hitler and pressing for air strikes- a call that Obama spurned. A perfect demonstration of Kerry’s lack of judgment, discernment, and just plain seriousness.

No. Fred Hof is not the problem. Fred Hof is a symptom of a bigger problem: the intellectual failings of American foreign policy.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Thank you for this post, Professor. Very interesting indeed.

    I have a couple questions/comments

    -Hama is well known to all Syrians, but is kept on the hush-hush. I have always heard 20,000 to 40,000 killed. Do you have a source for a different number? It’s not that I don’t believe you, I have just never heard of an official accounting. Who conducted this accounting? The Syrian government would surely under report casualties and the MB would surely inflate as you stated. I doubt the Syrian government would allow any NGOs like the UN in.

    -I am no fan of the MB, and my dream is for a secular, democratic, and capitalistic (i.e., the basis of all modern-western nations) Syria. I agree that the MB were opportunistic in latching onto what *was* the Syrian revolution. However, I do not think it would be fair to call the initial protests an MB-spring. This is purely anecdotal, but friends of my family members were out protesting in Syria, and they were the farthest thing from religious. I would like to say that most protesters at the outset truly were everyday young men that were frustrated with lack of freedom and lack of opportunity. I think when it became clear there would be no support for these protesters a more Islamist element began to emerge. In general it can be tough to distinguish between a moderate Syrian and one motivated by religion. The Sunni majority in Syria has always been known to be fairly conservative (outside the large cities, that is), so it’s not unrealistic to expect that most people are motivated in some part by Islam in their day to day lives. I am from Damascus which was a very cosmopolitan city. It was a lovely city in that you could observe both the religious and secular identities of Syria simultaneously.

    Comment by WB — October 17, 2015 @ 10:49 am

  2. @WB: 1. Western governments/diplomatic sources reported low numbers (1-2K) in the immediate aftermath. Then the quoted toll began to rise dramatically, coming mainly from outlets sympathetic to the Brotherhood. Then the Syrian regime got into the act. Figuring that a big death toll would cement its reputation for brutality, and therefore serve as a deterrent, its representatives (including Bashar’s brother) began to claim that they had killed tens of thousands.

    2. Your dream is delusional, and represents another projection of Western aspirations and values onto a society and culture that rejects them. Neocons and Wilsonians have caused no end of mischief by trying to realize those dreams. It was a remote possibility in 2011: it’s an impossibility now.

    3. Developments in Egypt, for which we have the best information, make it clear that the Brotherhood was the driving force, which exploited the discontent that exists in societies like Egypt, and Syria. In modern revolutions, who is always the driving force? The Leninist-style parties and secret organizations, who foment and exploit popular discontent. They are opportunists, but ruthlessly exploit their opportunities. Popular discontent may be the spark, but the revolutionary cadres are the accelerant.

    The Brotherhood was consciously Leninist in form and tactics from its very origins. Qutb viewed the Brotherhood as a revolutionary vanguard: indeed he used that very term. And his Milestones is widely remarked upon as bearing close resemblances to various Leninist tracts, most notably “What is to Be Done?”

    At the very least, as I said in the post, an understandably paranoid Assad would immediately conclude that the Muslim Brotherhood was the real threat, and responded in the usual style.

    When a revolutionary vanguard is involved, the nature of the society (mild, secular, cosmopolitan) soon becomes irrelevant.

    Regarding the Brotherhood in Syria specifically and the Middle East generally, I suggest you read some of the things Bob Baer has written about it. It was the Brotherhood that scared the hell out of him, and alerted him to the dangers of revolutionary Islamism. But his was a voice in the wilderness of the US government.

    One other detail that should lead you to question the prevailing narratives about the nature of the Arab revolts of 2011. Kayla Mueller’s “boyfriend,” Omar al Khani just happened to go from Sudan to Egypt right before the Arab Spring there, then magically appeared as a spokesman for the opposition Syria. He obviously had Islamist connections, and there are too many coincidences in that story for me to believe that he was anything but an operative for either the Brotherhood or some other Islamist group.


    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — October 17, 2015 @ 12:17 pm

  3. Professor, would you be willing to comment on Dr. Kissinger’s opinion piece in today’s Wall Street Journal? Thank you.

    Comment by LL — October 17, 2015 @ 4:15 pm

  4. Mr. Hof is not unusual. The bulk of developed nations’ senior government officials & most politicians
    & academics (not you, fortunately) share this unrealistic, naïve view of human nature. This despite
    constant examples to the contrary. Why is this–something in their environment, like no experience
    in the real world??

    Comment by eric — October 18, 2015 @ 12:11 am

  5. @eric-Projection and mirror imaging are rife. It is lack of exposure to the darker sides of the real world, and operating in a hermetically-sealed environment in which they interact mainly with people like themselves. Furthermore, there are strong social mechanisms that enforce consensus.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — October 18, 2015 @ 1:24 am

  6. @LL-Some of Kissinger’s diagnosis is sensible, some not. His prescriptions, however, are fantasy. A lot of it reminds me of the old Steve Martin routine, How to Make a Million Dollars and Not Pay Taxes. First, make a million dollars.

    Destroy ISIS. OK: just how, exactly?

    “For Russia, limiting its military role to the anti-ISIS campaign may avoid a return to Cold War conditions with the U.S.” The “anti-ISIS campaign” is merely a fig-leaf for Putin’s intervention, which has totally different objectives. And who says that Putin wants to avoid returning to Cold War conditions?

    “The reconquered territories should be restored to the local Sunni rule that existed there before the disintegration of both Iraqi and Syrian sovereignty.” Again: how, exactly? The Sunnis in Iraq have never reconciled to Shia rule. The Shia in Iraq want to crush the Sunnis, in revenge for centuries of humiliation. The presence of the US Army eventually secured an uneasy equilibrium. Absent that, in the maximalist, winner-take-all Middle East, what is going to keep the two sides apart?

    Federalism in Syria. When has federalism ever worked in the Middle East, especially in the aftermath of a gruesome civil war? That is not the way things work in that part of the world. The way ethnic conflict is suppressed and managed in the Middle East is not through federalism, but through dictatorial rule, with the dictators often being the minority (as was the case in Iraq and Syria). Syria isn’t Switzerland.

    “The U.S. should be prepared for a dialogue with an Iran returning to its role as a Westphalian state within its established borders.” Seriously? This is exactly the kind of projection/mirror imaging I criticized Hof for. Kissinger is all about the Westphalian state. The mullahs, not so much. They are Islamic supremacists who reject the Westphalian system, and who hate the West generally and the US specifically.

    For a supposed Realist, Kissinger’s prescriptions are decidedly unrealistic, and completely at odds with the reality of the Middle East. It ain’t Westphalia, circa 1648, or Vienna, circa 1815.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — October 18, 2015 @ 6:17 pm

  7. rose tint went a long way in our WW2 link with Stalin. I prefer to think of our longstanding beef with Iran as supportive of Israel, as it is, but it does not disagree with Saudi, either. we have had lunatic friends

    parties who have won battles against Sunni Islamists: Assad/Hezbollah, Kurds, Iraqi Shia nationalists (Islamists?). it appears that we couldn’t back any of these early and forcefully, because our allies in the neighborhood hate them, and probably because Obama’s liberal idealism biases him against dictators and avowedly sectarian groups

    parties who have won battles against Assad: Sunni Islamists, assorted “moderate rebels”. the former may be scarier than Assad, the latter is too petty to replace Assad. it appears that we couldn’t back any of these early and forcefully because Assad’s fall would lead to more slaughter

    some of the parties we have backed were made from scratch, which seems to b the only origin that could fit our moral criteria and the practical criteria of our allies. the biggest way they fulfill those criteria is harmlessness. the parties with battle success have had that against Assad, without much success against the Islamists, who have pushed them off the trail of beards, kidnapped them, jacked their stuff etc

    red lines: what is the cost of bluffing? is it worse than the slight difference in probabilities of chemical attacks with and without the bluff? does the bluff have anything to do with the subsequent Russian confiscation of the chem weapons?

    Russia is not beholden to Turkey, Sunni Arab states, or Bush/Hillary. they r a strong enough power to deter Turkey or Bush/Clinton from entering against Assad. that may put an important upper bound on the scale of bloody mania to come

    most US politicians sound like anarchists when they speak on the Syria situation. Obama has certainly sounded foolish on the issue, but I don’t c where he could’ve acted very differently

    I’m getting at a question for which a hi IQ Houstonian ex-military commodities expert may b the ideal respondent: what price would the US pay for telling our Sunni collaborators to stuff it, on ISIS?

    Comment by Daws — October 19, 2015 @ 2:44 am

  8. ‘Flagellating’, in fact.

    From Latin flagellum, meaning ‘whip’.

    Comment by Green As Grass — October 19, 2015 @ 3:07 am

  9. Kissinger’s MO is to clarify objectives, not so much to propose solutions. That can be salutary when policymakers and pundits are in a reactive mode to events, losing orientation on the gap between where we are and where we would like to go. The problem with this kind of “waterfall” approach, as TSP notes, is that the feasibility of objectives matters quite a bit and has to be fed back into the first step.

    I do not agree, however, that IS would be that hard to eliminate; not seeing their key vulnerability is actually a form of mirror-imaging. IS is a consistently ideological outfit that depends entirely on its alleged reinstitution of the Caliphate in Raqqa to sustain its legitimacy. It has a specific piece of turf that it must defend, no matter what, or go out of business. Either a Fallujah-style capture or a complete pulverization from the air would probably suffice to disintegrate the movement, although it would mutate into new forms and the al-Qaeda affiliates and splinters in the area would move into the resulting vacuum.

    Comment by srp — October 19, 2015 @ 2:28 pm

  10. @Green. Just checking to see how closely you are reading.

    I guess that’s one thing the Romans have done for us. Latin I mean.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — October 19, 2015 @ 9:01 pm

  11. @srp. I know that IS could be eliminated. From very early on I wrote that its momentum was dependent on a perception of invincibility, and that the best way of destroying it was to hand it a major defeat that would puncture that perception. My (provocative) suggestion was to put a large expeditionary force in Dabiq, the city that they believe will be the site of the decisive, apocalyptic battle between “the Romans” and Islam that will culminate in the victory of Islam and the End of Days. (ISIS named its English language propaganda magazine Dabiq.) Faced with such a challenge, ISIS would have no choice but to come out and play or face an utter humiliation that would lead to its demise, and could be pounded into the dust.

    But we both know nothing that you suggest or I suggest is going to happen. If Kissinger were to come out and say “destroy ISIS by deploying 50,000 soldiers and Marines” it would be a non-starter. So he just says “destroy ISIS and then this and then that.” That’s where the Steve Martin analogy comes in.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — October 19, 2015 @ 9:13 pm

  12. Wasn’t that just a typically managerial comment of mine. Points out a spelling error but nothing to say about the substance. I have changed jobs to get away from bosses like me.

    Seen this?

    Comment by Green As Grass — October 20, 2015 @ 2:46 am

  13. @Prof,

    “2. Your dream is delusional, and represents another projection of Western aspirations and values onto a society and culture that rejects them. Neocons and Wilsonians have caused no end of mischief by trying to realize those dreams.”

    That is precisely what Putin said about Chechnya… Besides, “a society and culture that rejects them” is precisely what was was said about Germany and Japan for not so many decades ago. And of course, the same applies to the North Koreans and only for couple of decades to the South Coreans too. Funny also that during the cold war the Soviets were also very eager to remind of the fact that there had never been a real democracy (even in its “decadent” Western capitalistic form) on the soil of any of its , by then, Middle- and Eastern European satellites. And before the Soviets the Russian Czars, Habsburgian Kaisers etc. imperial talking heads were as eager to point that the most of their repressed minority nations dreaming of independence from Finland to the Balkan Peninsula were in fact incapable to achieve these for the plain reason of simply belonging to the wrong “race” that had never in history before being capable of forming a national state…and therefore, naturally, neither in the future too. It is always their (our?) own fault being of what we/they are…

    Comment by Dixi — October 21, 2015 @ 6:54 am

  14. Must see short talk, (part of series of talks), Michael Weiss talking about Assad and Syria,.
    How Assad spread terrorist, both in Iraq and then in Syria.

    Comment by traveler — October 22, 2015 @ 5:22 pm

  15. @Dixi
    I couldn’t follow your argument but are you suggesting that in fact US efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, etc have in fact successfully installed liberal democracies in those countries? Or are you suggesting use of nuclear weapons (as in the case of Japan) would result in liberal democracies? Or are you suggesting to continue until unconditional surrender of all oppositional frces and hang the plotical elite from the gallows would be successful (as in the case of Germany)?

    Comment by pahoben — October 23, 2015 @ 5:48 am

  16. @Pahoben,
    I was not talking about the US policy. I just wanted to remind that racial/cultural predeterminism/fatalism has always been, and still is, a convenient tool and “justification” for any “powers that be” to grip to the power. There is nothing new in it, per se. For example, in Europe Germany, the Habsburgian Kaisers, Russia, the SU, and then again, Putin’s Russia have resorted to the concept of “predeterminism” as an excuse for suppressing their ethnic minorities again and again. For only 70 years ago Germany and Japan were being thought as as archetypes of the societies and cultures “that reject” liberal democracy… they have always been and therefore predestined to be in the future too.

    And, of course (as you well know), I am not advocating use of nuclear or other weapons would result in liberal democracies (otherwise the devastated Syria with Assad’s aim for unconditional surrender of all oppositional frces would be a democracy by now…) . I just wanted to remind that Japan and Germany make quite nice examples of how wrong those advocating racial/cultural predeterminism in the case of these two cultures/countries were. For even after having endured a massive destruction during II World War (and yes, even after use of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki) they have been capable to build up mature liberal democracies.

    Comment by Dixi — October 23, 2015 @ 12:58 pm

  17. @Dixi
    If you replace “For even after” with “Because” I think your position will be closer to reality.

    Comment by pahoben — October 24, 2015 @ 3:09 am

  18. @Pahoben,

    So, it was YOU (not me) who, after all, thinks that the birth of liberal democracy necessitates the use of nuclear weapons and/or “unconditional surrender of all oppositional forces and hanging the plotical elite from the gallows”?

    Ok, while the first option has been used only once in the history of mankind, the second has been used for thousand years without the emergence of liberal democracies. On the other hand, South Korea and many countries in the Central and Eastern Europe have done quite well on their bath towards a democratic society wihout either of these two options. Even though all their former imperialistic opressors (Japan in the case of S. Korea, the Habsburgs, (Nazi) Germany and Russian Empire/SU/Putin’s Russia in the case of Central and Eastern Europe) having tried to convince the rest of the world that there was/is no other option but chaos for all “these powers that be” in the case of all these societies and cultures “rejecting” any idea of a civilized or democratic society…at least beforehand.

    In the case of Syria it is not some indefinite “society” or “culture” but Assad’s family clan that rejects any idea for a society with even most rudimentary checks and balances with regard to the dictator and his family (whether w.r.t. the ruling elites’ economic interests, the underdeveloped economy or the prevalent lack of the rule of law (illegal arrests and disappearances of any person questioning the staus quo)). One needs to understand that in the beginning by 2011 this was the background for the public unrest in syria, not some well formulated idea of a fully developed Western liberal democracy here and now. The people in Syria are very well aware of that, even with all their shortcomings, the things are much better already in many Islamic countries (such as Turkey, Jordania and Tunisia). And to claim that the people striving for the change in that direction, are delusional is nothing but an utter example of cultural/racial fatalism.

    Comment by Dixi — October 24, 2015 @ 5:19 pm

  19. @Dixi
    Then back to my original question. Why haven’t liberal democracies developed in Iraq and Libya after overthrows and why do you expect Syria to be different?

    Comment by pahoben — October 26, 2015 @ 4:33 am

  20. Yes, there are many countries in the region: Libya, Iraq…Turkey,Jordania, Tunisia. In 2011, before Assad’s, Russia’s and Iran’s combined effort to drown the Syrian people’s struggle in blood while the West looks the other way, there still was three alternative futures for Syria. 1. That of Iraq and Libya. 2. that of Turkey, Jordania and Tunisia, 3. something in between these two extremes. Now, after 4 years of terror none of these three original alternatives have been realized. Instead, Syria has turn in to a Hell on earth. But this tragical outcome has nothing to do with “society” or “culture”. It is totally manmade and follws the well proven path of Chechnya, Putin being a mastermind and Assad his loyal servant.

    Comment by Dixi — October 30, 2015 @ 4:15 pm

  21. I like Germany and Japan, as they are, but that was a pricey conversion. I am not willing to pay it routinely, for smaller countries and smaller provocations

    The cause may be something other than race and culture, but it is durable enough in these places to have survived large efforts and intentions toward repair

    aren’t the A10s the real news here?

    Comment by Daws — October 30, 2015 @ 4:17 pm

  22. @Daws
    Always loved the A10’s and I think they may be using only practice rounds in the GAU8. Not even any reason to use serious rounds.

    Comment by pahoben — October 31, 2015 @ 1:14 pm

  23. @Daws & @pahoben. It is good to see the A-10s being deployed, but it’s way too late. They would have had a field day in May-June 2014 when Isis was on the advance in the open. But nope. Obama let them run amok. They took cities and will now be difficult to root out.

    An air campaign alone, disconnected from a serious ground campaign, cannot achieve much regardless of the type of aircraft being deployed. I’m not advocating a big ground campaign, because I don’t see the payoff from victory. Just saying that this air campaign, or arguably any imaginable air campaign, could not achieve decisive results without a complementary ground component.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — October 31, 2015 @ 1:31 pm

  24. @Daws,
    There is a huge space between nuclear strikes/World War II and doing nothing. E.g. arming the internal popular uprising never seen in Iraq or Afganistan.

    And when it comes to “smaller countries and smaller provocations”? Doing nothing might be expensive too. E.g, a Shiite dominated Middle East with Iran and Russia even capable putting pressure on the Saudi oil output and therefore the price level. Plus a wide spread alienation among the secular and moderate participants in the anti-Assad upsrising surving the Assad terror during the last four years. While the Bush administration can be chritisized of having been far too active in the ME, the Obama has been totally phlegmatic and far too long. Nothing new in democracies, the pendulum swinging back and forth between the two extremes.

    Comment by Dixi — October 31, 2015 @ 2:19 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress