Jacob Heilbrunn

Obama's Secret Syria Intervention

America has a long history of intervening secretly in what the Soviet Union used to call the "internal affairs" of other countries. A lot of times those interventions seemed to work out well at the time, but ended up backfiring (see Iran). At other times they simply went badly awry, as in the Bay of Pigs. Such actions bred festering animosity toward America and seemed to make a mockery of the very democratic values Washington claimed it was upholding.

Many of these policies actually had their origins in the postwar era when America sought to counter communist influence in western and eastern Europe. The labor movement and the CIA played a big role in trying to shore up the democratic opposition. Those moves, too, usually boomeranged, as communist regimes smashed the exiles that the CIA sent into Eastern Europe. George F. Kennan, who headed the Office of Policy Planning, said it was necessary to "fight fire with fire," but more often than not it was Washington that ended up getting burned.

Today the National Endowment for Democracy represents an attempt to get away from the seamier side of such interventions and to support civic organizations abroad. But today the Washington Post reports, on the basis of leaked classified cables, that America has secretly been backing the Syrian opposition. Apparently the State Department has financed Syrian groups and television programs attacking the Assad regime. U.S. diplomatic cables, the Post says, reveal that the State Department has disbursed at least $6 million to a group called the Movement for Justice and Development--a grouping of Syrian exiles living in London.

The import of this move seems clear: President Obama is supporting, much as his predecessor, George W. Bush did, regime change in Syria. Regime change may, or may not, be in America's interest. The Assad dictatorship, father and son, has been an ugly one. But what would replace it? Does Obama know? Does he have a clear read on the exiles in London (some of whom are apparently former members of the Muslim Brotherhood) that America has been supporting? The record of American assistance to such groups has not always been a happy one.

Another problem is that by intruding into Syrian domestic politics, the administration legitimizes the regime's claims that it is fighting foreign enemies intent on subverting the home land. For make no mistake: subversion is exactly what Obama is practicing. He is aiding a group that seeks to topple the current Syrian government. Now Obama could argue that he's been aiding it simply to use as a lever against Assad. Or he could maintain that he does want to oust him.

But to put the State Department in charge of what is tantamount to regime change seems reckless. The State Department is supposed to engage in diplomacy, not secret warfare. That's the CIA's job, even if it hasn't done a particularly effective job of it. The diplomat who wrote that Syria "would undoubtedly view any U.S. funds going to illegal political groups as tantamount to supporting regime change" in a secret April 2009 cable had it right. Obama is imperiling the State Department, not Syria.