Obama has created the mother of all messes for himself and the rest of us over Syria

The truly dismal, tentative way President Obama has approached this problem after he created it with his 'red line' language has been a classic historic case-study in How Not To Do Diplomacy

Looking worried..
Charles Crawford
On 9 September 2013 08:33

A well turned piece from John O'Sullivan at National Review on Syria:

"As the debate on Syria ricochets along, I am struck by a contrast between the internal conservative debate on the crisis and the wider political, diplomatic, and media debates. By and large the conservative debate is both civil and serious. There are exceptions, but most conservatives accept that their opponents advance reasonable points and they seek to rebut them by reasoned argument.

"My own take on Syria, for what it’s worth, is skeptical about intervention. Its latest expression is in the London Spectator. Chris Caldwell has a strong piece in the same issue in which he sees Britain’s parliamentary vote and congressional resistance to intervention as signs that both publics will no longer be hustled into military adventures by declarations that civilization is at stake. The Anglo-America “special relationship,” he argues, is working very well. It’s just that it’s working for the voters rather than for their governments.

"But there are serious arguments on the other side. The first is that we should uphold as far as we can the long international probition on chemical weapons. The second, which counts strongly with such conservatives as NR’s editors and Walter Russell Mead, is that Washington cannot allow its warnings to be disregarded with impunity if it is to preserve its authority for the future.

"I don’t reject these arguments out of hand; indeed, I share them as aims. But it seems very probable that the action proposed by President Obama will uphold neither the prohibition on chemical warfare nor the authority of the U.S. because it has been carefully designed to change as little as possible in Syria. It might even strengthen the position of President Assad and his regime or, slightly less damagingly, look like the pointless gesture it is — Joseph Conrad’s gunboat “firing into Africa” to make a point in some European capital."

And there's the very Walter Russell Mead:

"During his time in the White House, President Obama has repeatedly demonstrated a style of decision making that gets him in trouble. Especially when the stakes are high and the issue is complex, the President overthinks himself and tries to split the difference between tough policy choices. He comes up with stratagems that work beautifully on paper and offer well reasoned, moderate alternatives to stark choices. Unfortunately, they usually don’t work all that well in the real world, with the President repeatedly ending up in the “sour spot” where his careful approaches don’t get him where he needs to go.

"This style of strategy is what’s boxed him in and tied him in knots over Syria. He didn’t want to intervene (too risky) but he didn’t want to ignore the carnage completely (too heartless) so he split the difference and proclaimed a red line. He didn’t lay the political preparations for war before the red line statement; again, too risky and too warlike. Instead, he split the difference once again: he made a threat without ensuring that he’d have the backing to carry it out...

"As a result, President Obama finds himself in the biggest and ugliest public mess of his career, with a total policy meltdown playing out on the front pages and cable TV studios of the world. It is like a slow motion Bay of Pigs, unrolling at an agonizing, prestige wrecking pace from day to day and week to week. It is almost impossible to defend whatever policy he actually has in mind at this point, yet the consequences of a congressional vote that opposes him are grave.

"We’re hoping the Good Foreign Policy Fairy comes along and waves her magic wand over this Syria mess and somehow helps the administration avoid the disaster it has struggled so hard to produce. Otherwise, it’s hard to see anything good coming out of this epic policy meltdown beyond, perhaps, a useful reminder to future presidents that the Constitution does place limits on executive power, and that regular consultation with Congress about important foreign policy problems is probably a good idea.

"If there really is a special providence for drunks, fools and the United States of America, this would be an excellent time for it to put in an appearance."

And Conor Friedersdorf, quoting Jim Manzi:

"The most common argument for attacking Syria is that we must maintain our credibility when the sitting president issues ultimatums (even if they are ill-advised)."'

"The problem with this is that while the president of the United States has awesome powers under the Constitution, they do not include declaring war. He can declare “red lines” all he wants, but he can’t constitutionally commit the nation to preemptive military action in the event they are crossed. If this “loss of credibility” means in practical terms that U.S. presidents are less able to make credible insinuations that they can unilaterally commit us to wars, then this would likely result in: fewer such presidential assertions being issued; more consultation and consideration before they are issued; and more reliable delivery on the threats when the situation calls for it. Such a loss of credibility would be a feature, not a bug."

"Just so. What the U.S. should signal to the world is that U.S. credibility does not rest on doing any fool thing uttered by the person who happens to be president at a given time. He or she doesn't speak for all Americans, and lacks the power to act in ways that the people and their elected representatives judge to be foolhardy. Unlike the perception Gerson wants to create, this has the virtue of being true."

My view?

The truly dismal, tentative way President Obama has approached this problem after he created it with his 'red line' language has been a classic historic case-study in How Not To Do Diplomacy.

Be that as it may, I can see no point in a symbolic 'punitive' bombing now. That might have made sense as a rapid response by the USA straight after the chemical weapons were used, sending an unambiguous signal: "Any state that uses chemical weapons or creates the context in which their use may be much more likely is committing a clear crime against humanity, and up with that we Americans will not put, Nobel Peace Prize and all!"

Had a short sharp yet mainly symbolic strike been done in that way, President Obama would have been able to stride into the G20 meeting looking (and being) tough and principled. That could have led to a totally different discussion with the Russians and everyone else. As it was, he was reduced to arriving late for the key occasions as he scrambled to knock together improvised moves while keeping an eye on domestic political dismay on all sides at his dithering.

Now that the moment for that sort of intervention has passed, it seems to me that to be politically and morally credible any intervention now has to be able to demonstrate some plausible chance of improving the situation in fact. I have seen no case being made for what that improved outcome might be, as I suspect that no-one can work out what it is.

If there is no readiness boldly to do what it takes to topple Assad and ruthlessly weigh in to help anti-Assad rebels who may be more or less reasonable, there looks to be nothing much else sensibly to be done other than ring-fence the problem as best we can and let the disaster unfold as it may.

John O'Sullivan hankers after some sort of new diplomatic initiative that gives world powers something to do usefully together:

"... though saving President Obama’s face is not something that keeps me awake at night, it is worth doing if it saves America’s authority and influence at the same time. What this suggests is the kind of helpful diplomatic initiative by a neutral third country, preferably one with links to the main players, that muddies the waters and conceals the spectacle of people clambering down from high horses, even at some cost in principle.

"Yes, a fudge. Some nations are like high-quality confectioners; they specialize in making fudge: the Finns, the Norwegians, the Swiss, in this case perhaps the Algerians. Maybe one of them could propose that the U.S., the Russians, the EU, Turkey, and others should convene a new conference to strengthen the prohibition on chemical warfare, for instance extending sanctions from users to suppliers, and delaying any military action until it has completed its (urgent) work. No, I don’t like eating fudge either, but I prefer it to eating either of the two alternatives currently on offer. At the very least it avoids manifest dangers."

That, I think, won't work. Outcomes like that are hard to negotiate and then implement precisely because there are likely to be tough legal consequences. Controlling chemicals is a vastly difficult task anyway, as it is so easy to make most chemical weapons from chemicals used for harmless other purposes. And while diplomats are bickering over that, the facts on the ground in Syria may simply get worse and spread outwards.

Perhaps the best outcome now is nonetheless that Western governments pull back with whatever dignity we can still muster and we let the issue rot until some new consensus emerges for tackling it. This G-Zero option is well articulated by Ian Brummer:

"Assad, Syrian rebels, Americans, Russians, and Arabs all merit criticism. But finger-pointing misses the point: Syria’s situation is the strongest evidence yet of a new “G-Zero” world order, in which no single power or bloc of powers will accept the costs and risks that accompany global leadership."

The costs for Syria's people will be horrendous. But Arabs/Muslims can't rail against well-intentioned Western intervention then clamour for it when it suits them. Perhaps the sight of Syria decomposing will finally turn the 'Arab world' in revulsion against Moscow/Beijing - no bad thing, even if the price in Arab lives (and Obama's evaporating 'credibility') is appalling.

Bottom Line?

It's terrible if foreigners do really bad things to each other. But if you don't know what likely better outcome you can reasonably expect from blowing up some of those bad foreign people, just don't do it.

Charles Crawford is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. A former British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw, he is now a private consultant and writer: www.charlescrawford.biz. He tweets @charlescrawford

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