Despite the continuing indignities of airline transportation, modern travel abroad does offer one compensation. It is no longer necessary to scurry about looking for an International Herald Tribune in order to learn what’s going on back home and around the world. Wi-Fi is ubiquitous and even American televised news is available in the better hotels. So it was not difficult from afar to follow the apparent train wreck of our government’s ever-changing positions as to Syria. And it was interesting to do so while traveling in territory – from Istanbul to Athens – that had been the scene of endless conflicts, and the rise and fall of various civilizations, for over three millenia. Those surroundings were a sad reminder that improvements in technology, including the technology of killing, have far outstripped improvements in the human skill of conflict resolution.
The handling of Syria by the Obama Administration was, to put it charitably, awkward from the outset. Bold rhetoric has been unaccompanied by the will to take any actions reasonably designed to achieve the government’s stated aims. It has been quite the antithesis of Teddy Roosevelt’s prescription to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” We have spoken all too loudly while making it clear that our big stick would remain tucked away safely in the closet. For example, President Obama called for Assad’s resignation more than two years ago. And in December of last year he proclaimed that the United States would give official recognition to the Syrian opposition as the legitimate government of Syria (seeming untroubled by the inability to identify just who the opposition consisted of). Yet the President consistently rejected the urging of Senators Graham and McCain and others to support the Free Syrian Army (the element of the Syrian opposition presumed to be free of control by al Qaeda). Although such support would have made the removal of Assad far more likely, success would not have been assured. Removal of Assad without American “boots on the ground” – which no one favored – would not have been easy. Nevertheless, the gulf between our aspirations and our actions was striking. Only in June did the President finally state that the United States would begin to furnish “light arms” to the opposition. Apart from the fact that no one believed that such weapons would make much of a difference, actual delivery appears to have begun only within the last week.
The prospect, and then the use, of chemical weapons brought a new dimension to the Administration’s troubled policy. In August of 2012, President Obama famously said that the use of chemical weapons by Syria would cross a “red line,” for which Syria would be held accountable, adding that our military had prepared a broad range of contingency plans for responding to any such use. Similar warnings were expressed by both Secretary Clinton and President Obama in December 2012. In light of subsequent events, however, it is doubtful that the “contingency plans” had been thoroughly thought through and still less that much consideration had been given to the political problems—domestic and international—that would have to be resolved in order to implement military plans. While Harry Truman had sign on his desk saying “The buck stops here,” President Obama and his successors might be well advised to have one saying “Beware of drawing red lines.”
After Syria’s use of chemical weapons on August 21, the embarrassing zig-zags in the Administration’s pronouncements are too recent and have been too well reported to require recounting here. In summary, President Obama’s proposal to mount a limited (or “incredibly small”) military strike to “punish” Assad and deter future use of chemical weapons, drew little support in Congress and from our allies abroad. That circumstance was hardly surprising given that assessments of both the benefits and risks of such a strike seemed highly speculative at best. The most compelling argument to be made in support of the President’s proposal was that rejection of it by Congress would visit a humiliating defeat on him, a defeat that would be harmful to American credibility in general and most particularly in attempts to negotiate with Iran. The President, of course, might choose to proceed with an attack in the face of Congressional disapproval, but he would pay an extraordinarily heavy political price for doing so.
Into that gloomy scene stepped Vladimir Putin with a proposal, quickly accepted by Syria, that Syria’s inventory of chemical weapons be placed under international control. Approval by the United States, at least in principal, soon followed, putting on hold any action in Congress on the proposed use of force. Most of the country breathed a cautious sigh of relief, but there were those who were disappointed. The Wall Street Journal, for example, suggested that Putin had protected Assad from a military attack and that Putin’s initiative should have been rebuffed. That view, however, ignored the fact that the prospects of a military attack by the U.S. had almost disappeared before Putin spoke. More realistically, the Putin proposal was seen by others as a lifeline for Obama, a means of extricating him from the muddy waters in which he was floundering.
What was Putin’s motivation for this rescue? The most obvious answer is the satisfaction, both personal and national, of putting Russia once again in the position of being a major player on the international stage. The conclusion is reinforced by Putin’s rather patronizing op-ed piece in The New York Times wherein he presumed to lecture the United States about international law and morality. Unembarrassed by the inclusion of a clumsy falsehood (“[T]here is every reason to believe [poison gas] was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces…”), he even closed with a dash of theology: “We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.” Observers have questioned whether Putin wrote the letter himself, but even if he did not, he must have relished it as much as if he were the author. What the cost of the elevation of Mr. Putin may be remains to be seen.
While Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov have now reached an agreement with respect to the Syrian inventory of chemical weapons, implementing it will be quite difficult and many potential pitfalls lie ahead. Assuming that the agreement does work, and that the crisis over chemical weapons is thereby resolved, what are the lessons to be learned? One is that, as previously suggested, the drawing of red lines should almost always be avoided. A lifeline from Putin or others will not always be at hand. The second may be the importance of multilateralism. Faced with conduct by other countries that may be horrific and outrageous but does not pose a direct and identifiable threat to the United States, we should probably avoid taking military action except under UN auspices or at least in concert with a substantial coalition of other nations. The Obama Administration will claim that the issue of chemical weapons was resolved only because of the “credible threat” of its unilateral use of military force.The fact is, however, that by the time Putin stepped in, that threat was no longer very credible and was becoming less so each day.
If the issue of chemical weapons is resolved, the larger issue will remain: how much and what kind of support – short of direct military action – to give the Free Syrian Army. On the one hand, the Republican Party should not retreat to the form of neo-isolationism seemingly advocated by Senators Rand and Cruz. But neither is it clear that it should embrace the dramatically heightened support of the Syrian opposition urged by Senators McCain and Graham. What is first required is thoughtful and objective analysis of the subsidiary questions: What is the impact on U.S. interests if the conflict drags on indefinitely? Or if Assad is successful in suppressing the opposition? What are the realistic prospects, at this rather late date, of dislodging Assad? What are the most credible estimates of cost and risk in heightened support for the opposition? If Assad is removed, who and what is likely to take his place? Specifically, can we be assured that we would not be devoting resources to making Syria safe for al Qaeda? The answers are not knowable with certainty, but surely the questions should be the subject of intense and searching Congressional hearings, even if held largely behind closed doors. It must be acknowledged that we have grown accustomed to looking to the Executive for leadership in these matters, and Congressional hearings may be a clumsy instrument. Nevertheless, recent history suggests the need for scrutiny before rather than after the fact, and the issues are well within Congress’s constitutional responsibilities.
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Glad to be back, but as Ogden Nash might have put it, ” Writing a blog about Syria/Can leave you sadda and wearia.”