The growing focus, at home and abroad, on a proposal under which Bashar al-Assad would subject his chemical weapons to international control seems an all-too-fitting next step in the clumsy U.S. effort to punish the Syrian strongman for using those weapons against his own people, killing more than 1,400 of them in late August.
The coming weeks of global talks will likely produce one of two things – no effective and verifiable deal, or a face-saving one of limited enforceability – either of which would undermine President Obama’s promise to punish al-Assad and erode any remaining support in Congress and among the public for U.S. military action.
Those talks will invariably put the spotlight on a diplomatic response to al-Assad’s savagery. If no deal ensues, Obama will then be hard-pressed to reignite whatever support exists in Washington and around the country for military action – separate and apart from whether Obama himself will want to reignite it or, instead, will feel relieved that he wouldn’t be able to do so anyway.
That, in turn, would send a message not of firm U.S. resolve to our allies and adversaries alike, which Obama said he was seeking with his efforts to punish al-Assad, but one of wavering U.S. resolve to enforce “red lines” and a questionable willingness to use all of the tools in our arsenal (including military force) to do so.
To be sure, as Winston Churchill used to say, “jaw jaw is better than war war.” No reasonable person would reject a legitimate deal that achieves the same goal that a U.S. military strike was supposed to achieve.
Nevertheless, the proposal to transfer al-Assad’s chemical weapons to international control – which remains more conceptual than substantive at this point, requiring lots of back-up details – has all the earmarks of a convenient exit ramp for an ambivalent President who was facing a skeptical Congress and public.
Consider its unveiling, which came in what seemed an off-the-cuff remark from Secretary of State John Kerry in London that the White House first disavowed as a gaffe and then embraced as an opportunity. In fact, it was unclear a day later whether Kerry erred by answering a reporter’s question speculatively, or just aired an idea that Obama later said that he had discussed the previous week with Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
But, the Administration’s dissembling about where this idea originated is part and parcel for a President and foreign policy team that have, since late August, waxed incoherently about the purpose and scope of possible U.S. military action.
Rather than lead the country on what Obama, Kerry, and other officials describe in moral terms – the necessity to punish al-Assad for violating a longstanding international norm against chemical weapons – the Administration has sought instead to satisfy key domestic constituencies that don’t agree with one another, thus leaving the Administration with an inevitably muddled message.
For doves, Kerry said that a military strike would be an “unbelievably small, limited kind of action.” For hawks, Obama said that “[t]he United States does not do pinpricks.” For a Congress and public that desire no U.S. deaths, everyone says that we won’t see “boots on the ground.” For a post-Bush era in which Americans are skeptical about “regime change,” the President says that we’re not aiming to unseat al-Assad (even though Obama said long ago that it was time for him to go.)
Further muddling the message, the President said that he had all the authority he needs to order military action, but he nonetheless seeks approval from a skeptical Congress – including a Republican-run House with growing isolationist strains and a deep-seated animosity to all Obama-related initiatives. Further still, the White House said that it wants to degrade al-Assad’s capacity to again use chemical weapons, but it doesn’t want to tilt the balance away from him in his ongoing war with rebels or degrade his capacity to slaughter his own people in other indiscriminate ways.
Now, Obama has asked Senate leaders to delay this week’s scheduled vote to authorize military action, clearing the way for global leaders to work on the proposal to bring Syria’s weapons under international control without any threat that the United States will pull the military trigger any time soon.
In addition, Kerry will travel to Geneva this week to meet with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, to flesh out the proposal.
Look for weeks of fruitless negotiations, followed by White House befuddlement over what to do next.
Lawrence J. Haas, former communications director for Vice President Gore, writes widely on foreign affairs and is author of “Sound the Trumpet: The United States and Human Rights Promotion.”