The Washington Post's coverage of US State Embassy cables that suggest the US has been secretly backing Syrian opposition groups snowballed into a big story today. With the regime gunning down more protesters, senior Obama Administration officials took the opportunity to rehash the talking point that the disclosure of information obtained by WikiLeaks could endanger lives.
Whether the US is working to undermine the Syrian government or not became a key topic for Acting Deputy State Department Spokesman Mark C. Toner, who currently fills this position because PJ Crowley was forced out of the position after being too forthright about his position on alleged whistleblower Bradley Manning.
*Scroll to about the 5:40 mark to watch the exchange on Syria.
Fox News' James Rosen bluntly asks, "Is the United States Government, through any programs or means, trying to destabilize the Assad regime in Syria?" Rather than answer the question, Toner immediately reacted, "Well, the premise of your question is whether we are engaged in"" Rosen cut him off saying, "There was no premise," and "it was a flat-out question."
The State Department, unfortunately, is incapable of providing flat-out answers to flat-out questions. This problem is not exclusive to the State Department; many in the US government have this problem. That's why Fox News host Shepherd Smith is so frustrated these days and thinks "the only straight answers we get anymore" come from WikiLeaks.
What follows is instructive. Toner tries to cut off the conversation by suggesting if this has to do with the classified cables then this conversation is over:
MR. TONER: Yes, but, as you know, James, we need to be careful in -- to identify what we're talking about because if you're talking about a news story based on the contents of -- or the alleged contents of classified cables, then I can't speak to the specific substance of that.
QUESTION: I didn't ask you to speak to anything specific. My question was, very broadly, is the United States Government, through any programs or means, presently working to destabilize the Asad regime in Syria? If the answer is no, you should feel free to say so.
Rosen did not share his motivation for asking this question. He doesn't even say "WikiLeaks." That's probably because saying "WikiLeaks" would be the easiest way to ensure the question went unanswered.
With the routine disclaimer out of the way, Toner manages to say something that sort of has to do with the question:
MR. TONER: Well, we do -- and look, this is a -- to talk about Syria, but we should also talk globally here. The U.S. democracy and governance programs in Syria, it's no different than programs that the United States has in many other democratic governments around the world -- or countries around the world. This is part of our support for civil society and nongovernmental organizations. What's different, I think, in this situation is that the Syrian Government perceives this kind of assistance as a threat to its control over the Syrian people.
Rosen, unhappy with this answer, asks the question again, directly. Toner states plainly:
MR. TONER: No. We are not working to undermine that government. What we are trying to do in Syria, through our civil society support, is to build the kind of democratic institutions, frankly, that we're trying to do in countries around the globe. My own personal experience, when I was in Poland in the 1990s, we worked enormously with civil society and nongovernmental organizations. The difference here, as I said, is that the Syrian Government perceives this kind of assistance as a threat to its existence.
In case you were thinking, why wouldn't the Syrian government find this to be a threat to its existence, one reporter asks, "Explain how trying to promote democratic institutions in an undemocratic society is not trying to undermine that undemocratic society." The answer she gets:
MR. TONER: Well, again, trying to promote a transformation to a more democratic process in the society is not undermining necessarily the existing government. What we're trying to do, and what President Asad is facing right now, is a push by his very own people to move in a more democratic direction. We have been working for many years, both in Syria and other places in the world, to promote those ideals because we believe they're in the long-range benefit to these societies.
This is pure newspeak. Toner simply chooses to use the word "transform" instead of the word "undermine." Just ask this question: if what is happening in Syria is the result of promoting democratic transformation, clearly, isn't that promotion having a destabilizing effect right now? Doesn't it seem like President Bashar al-Assad is increasingly losing control?