On the merits of diplomacy

Jon Chait has a new article out discussing Obama’s speech on Syria yesterday evening. In case you haven’t been following the (almost laughably ridiculous) developments with regard to Syria over the past 48 hours, it went something like this:

In the course of ginning up support for an air-strike against Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry made an off-hand, hypothetical remark about how if Syria turned over its chemical weapon stockpile to the international community, air-strikes might not be necessary. After this comment, State dept. officials immediately began walking back Kerry’s comments. However, the Russian foreign minister appeared willing to begin negotiating on behalf of Syria for Assad to relinquish his control of chemical weapons; thus, the White House was forced to walk-back the State dept’s walk-back of Kerry’s remarks, and now it seems as if progress is being made on the diplomatic front. This was all leading up to Obama’s speech, which was originally intended to be the final push for public support for an air-strike, but ended up being a somewhat philosophical defense of America’s obligation to uphold international norms, combined with asking Congress to hold off on a vote to authorize force so that America can pursue diplomacy. Chait sums it up well:

It may be hard to accept the good fortune of the diplomatic initiative simply because it was so weird and random, and Obama’s entire strategy has followed such a winding course. Obama probably never imagined his “red line” comment would lead to a moment when he was delivering a grim East Room speech. Kerry surely never envisioned his loose hypothetical speculation about Assad turning over his arsenal would wind up defining the end of the crisis. But, having arguably blundered into the precipice of war, the administration seems to have indisputably blundered into a promising solution.

These developments raise just oh so many questions for me, but I’ll try to limit it to my top three:

1) Did the threat of military force from the US compel Russia and Syria to the negotiating table? I think, at this point, conventional wisdom in the US says yes. However, I’m not so sure–in order to put pressure on Assad, the threat to use force would have to be credible; however, all signs point to the fact that Obama was going to lose his vote on the authorization to use force. Why not wait to open diplomatic negotiations after Obama lost his vote, when the US was greatly weakened? (Or, why open them at all if Congress wasn’t going to authorize the use of force)? Did Assad believe the US would strike anyway?

Furthermore, the US made it very clear that it was not intending to alter the outcome of Syria’s civil war; we just wanted to ‘punish’ Assad for his use of chemical weapons. Now, putting aside the fact that it would be hard to ‘punish’ someone without inflicting enough harm to alter the balance of the dispute (where’s the incentive to not use the weapons again?), but this threat could hardly have been enough to compel Assad to the negotiating table. So, for the threat of a US military strike to have compelled Syria and Russia to begin negotiating, not only did Syria and Russia have to misread the likelihood of an American attack, but that had to believe that American force would have been more severe than Obama indicated to the general public. I’m not entirely convinced; on the other hand, I’m a little confused by Russia’s willingness to save Obama from what seemed to be an impending political embarrassment (in losing the force authorization vote). Curious to see what we learn over the coming days.

2) Why did we stumble into this accidentally? Or, in other words, why hadn’t we approached this (or other) diplomatic options sooner?

It seems that Russia was clearly willing to negotiate; did we even approach them before we started talking about the use of force? Did Obama feel compelled to use force because of the media framing of his ‘red line’ on chemical weapons? I have serious issues with a political dynamic that compels the use of force, against the general wishes of the American public, before all diplomatic options have been exhausted. I really hope that wasn’t the case, but it appears as if that’s exactly what happened.

3) To go back to Chait’s quote, if Obama couldn’t imagine a situation where he set a red line and Syria crossed it, leading to a tough political situation, then he needs to fire all of his foreign policy and political advisers. Why in the HELL would you use language like ‘red line’ if you hadn’t thought out all of the possible outcomes and how the US would respond to each. This demonstrates a significant and alarming lack of strategic foresight among Obama’s political advisers–these are traits which I have noticed consistently in Obama’s political management of the economy (the Larry Summers fiasco and no one knowing about Obama’s significant deficit reduction come to mind), but for the most part Obama has steered clear of this sort of mistake in his foreign policy-making.

My guess is that this was the result of some fairly serious internal disagreement about the correct response to Syria; the democratic party (and the American public in general) are deeply divided between (roughly) those who believe the US should intervene in Syrian on humanitarian grounds and those that believe we should keep our distance. I could see how Obama, in siding with the non-interventionists among his advisers, could throw a bone to the interventionists among his advisers by publicly stating that the US would intervene in a low-probability, highly-horrific situation (like Assad using chemical weapons). Still, that phrase shouldn’t have been uttered without contingency plans in place–hopefully this doesn’t become a pattern for Obama’s second-term foreign policy-making.


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