A state’s credibility is not dependent on one conflict. It depends more on choosing the right arenas in which to intervene.
US credibility will depend on making right decisions in Syria
The past week has seen a greater level of confusion in western diplomacy than anyone could have imagined. President Barack Obama’s speech on Tuesday, originally billed as a call to arms to punish the Syrian regime for using chemical weapons, was hastily rewritten to become a plea to sit and wait.
It followed an extraordinary day on Monday when Mr Obama was facing defeat in Congress over his plan for a limited strike. As public support waned, top officials argued among themselves about how light their strike could be. John Kerry, the US secretary of state, said it would be “unbelievably small”. The president retorted “The US doesn’t do pinpricks”.
As the administration floundered, Mr Kerry mentioned, almost as an aside, that President Bashar Al Assad could save himself if he turned over all his chemical weapons within a week. Mr Kerry added that the Syrian regime would never agree to this, and in any case, it could not be done.
But this non-proposal was instantly picked up by the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, who said he was willing to work with the Syrian government on it. Suddenly it became the life raft that the drowning Obama team hauled themselves aboard. Rarely can a broken-backed proposal have become state policy so speedily.
In diplomacy, such a volte-face is usually slipped past the media in a camouflage of impenetrable verbiage. Not this time.
President Vladimir Putin, who has spiked every attempted move by the US and allies over Syria for the past two years, popped up in the pages of The New York Times yesterday to address the American people. America was wrong to think of itself as “exceptional”, with a unique responsibility to be the world’s policeman, he argued.
“We are all different,” he wrote, “but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.” The message is clear: the Kremlin has just as much right to determine events in Syria as Washington. Russia is no less godly a place than America.
All this amounts to a rare victory for Russian diplomacy, often so flat-footed. Congratulations to Mr Lavrov for refashioning his boss’s image.
A commentator in The Daily Telegraph, which is a keen supporter of the exercise of US military might, declared that Monday was “the worst day for US and wider western diplomacy since records began”.
In terms of joined-up alliance politics, this may be true. But if you look at the issue from the angle of how often the US has chosen to stay out of foreign conflicts and how often its interventions have had bad consequences, then indecision begins to make more sense.
The Syrian rebels who feel let down by Mr Obama will find many sympathisers in the graveyards of foreign conflicts. In 1956, the Americans refused to help the Hungarian revolution, allowing it to be crushed by Soviet tanks. Ronald Reagan, icon of the American right, turned a blind eye to Saddam Hussein’s gassing of the Kurds in Halabja in 1988. George H Bush allowed the Shia uprising in southern Iraq in 1991 to be drowned in blood by Saddam’s army after a few portraits of Ayatollah Khomeini appeared around Basra.
There is no worse reason for going to war than wanting to appear strong. President Jimmy Carter was pilloried as a weakling in 1979 for allowing the Russians to take over Afghanistan – a country already in their sphere of interest – which he could have stopped only with a threat of nuclear annihilation. His successors fuelled an insurrection with arms and money. With hindsight, Soviet-style development would have led to a far better outcome for Afghanistan than 30 years of war.
The problem for Mr Obama is that he cannot address the Syrian civil war honestly without raising the spectre of American decline. At a time when America is in debt and its economic pre-eminence is challenged by China and other rising powers, the president is unable to declare that there are some conflicts in which it is better not to intervene. Strangely, the US military has no qualms about stating baldly that there are no good military options in Syria.
The second burden he carries is the one that forced Washington to send half a million troops to South Vietnam, to defend a corrupt government from attack by the communists in the North. If the US did not defend its South Vietnamese ally, the communists would swarm all the way to Australia – or so the “domino theory” held at the time.
But a state’s credibility is not dependent on one conflict, particularly if that conflict is ill-chosen and unwinnable. A state’s credibility depends more on choosing the right arenas in which to intervene. This is surely the lesson of the past week: The Russians have only one card to play in the big power poker game, their veto in the UN Security Council and a good prospect for bluffing in their ability to export air defence systems to Syria and Iran.
The proposal to map, collect and destroy Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons is probably, as Mr Kerry initially said, impossible to achieve in time of civil war. The Assad regime surely does not want to disarm itself in the face of an implacable domestic enemy and a nuclear-armed Israel. It could take months to clarify this while the killing continues.
The Obama administration’s handling of Syria has been a catastrophe. If it was going to intervene, it should have done so 18 months ago, before the rise of the jihadists in rebel ranks complicated the calculus of intervention. A shocking picture of a jihadist beheading a regime militiaman is featured in this week’s Paris-Match, a magazine better known for celebrity coverage.
Whatever decision the White House takes or fails to take on Syria, the debate should not focus on credibility. This is a false issue which has led the US into wars before. This is a bitter pill for American pride, but not a deadly one. The real issue to focus on is what useful result can be achieved.
On Twitter: @aphilps