September 11, 2013

Farce as Foreign Policy: The Syria Debacle

The gyrations in Syria policy the past week have been simply staggering, beyond the missteps previously chronicled here and the still inadequately proven and/or publicized intelligence I attempted to describe here. On September 5th the United States Ambassador to the United Nations accused Russia of holding “hostage” the UN Security Council given its ‘patronage’ of Syria (as if the United States has never showered patronage on her clients, for instance, myriad vetoes and assorted abstentions on any matter of Israel-related fare). Yet, just five days later, Russia was front and center having cleverly outmaneuvered the American diplomatic apparatus, largely by leaping on a reportedly off-the-cuff, ‘rhetorical’ ultimatum by Secretary of State John Kerry and nimbly re-fashioning it with dispatch into a fig-leaf diplomatic gambit which will likely stave off U.S. airstrikes (of course, its primary, if not sole, objective). The supreme irony is that it is not clear whether Vladimir Putin and Sergei Lavrov rendered more of a favor to their client in Damascus via these Machiavellian machinations, or rather to the U.S. President who appeared on the cusp of a resounding rejection of his unconvincing military cogitations by the American Congress, to say nothing of the lion’s share of his putative allies.

So how did we get to this inglorious impasse? For, make no mistake, Moscow and Damascus will now look to play out the clock and use every trick in the playbook to ensure, first and foremost, that Assad remain in power, second that Franco-American military power is not deployed against Assad’s chemical weapons (“CW”) program, and third that Assad’s CW program is not wholly destroyed, dismantled or otherwise put under convincing, full-bore international supervision (particularly in the context that a raging civil war is underway in that country). Meantime, the notion that this was not ‘gaffe diplomacy’ but the product of months of intricate dialogue with Moscow that belatedly came to fruit is credulity-challenging in the extreme, not least given the State Department’s immediate attempts to walk back Kerry’s remarks, but also broader context like the Obama-Putin summit being canceled in a fit of Edward Snowden pique as weightier agenda items like Syria languished after the NSA-related hissy-fit. Regardless, for those interested in a quick peek at a midstream post-mortem, several key factors helped contribute to this dismally embarrassing episode in U.S. foreign policy history:

1) The President’s Decision to go to Congress Smelled like a Panic Move: Having witnessed the UK Parliamentary debacle, and likely himself possibly looking for an out, Obama’s 45 minute walk-about with Chief of Staff Denis McDonough signaled indecision (not only to his blindsided national security team, but also the entire international community). And while I would have welcomed a sincere attempt to obtain the imprimatur of the legislature’s approval for a possible Syria military action, Obama effectively eviscerated the basic integrity and bona fides of the exercise by simultaneously saying he did not strictly require it as a legal matter given his ‘Commander-in-Chief’ authorities. The 11th and a half hour decision instead simply appeared borne of chaos, drift and indecision passing as policy, one already ridden by painfully apparent prior missteps. The world continued to take due note.

2) The Long Shadow of Iraq: While the UN Ambassador was busily breezily querying the basic cornerstone underpinnings of the post WWII security architecture (e.g. the role of the UN Security Council, which like it or not, if wholly shunted aside without replacement international infrastructure, could eventually lead to far greater perils than any single CW attack), such myopically fanatical R2P adherents apparently did not engage in the merest bit of navel-gazing amidst the festival of frenzied outrage. Post-Iraq, was ‘high confidence’ good enough to launch a war, rather than confirmation? Why were the fatality counts in Ghouta so wildly different among different intelligence services? And why this “absurdly over-precise number” (CSIS Analyst Anthony Cordesman’s words) tally of 1429 dead? All this speaks to basic credibility, and one could be forgiven for being truly astounded that the Administration did not better realize how much higher the burden of proof needed to be post the Mesopotamian morass.

3) Double Standards: Nor did the policy-makers in their Washington DC and Turtle Bay habitats evidently deign to pause and wonder: might we look hypocritical to some, given how selective this bout of mighty, amped-up outrage? After all, how many civilians were killed during Israel’s brutal Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, a campaign leading to a similar fatality count as alleged in Ghouta--both in terms of civilian adults and children tallies of dead--amidst horrific onslaughts in massively densely populated civilian areas, whether caused by conventional weaponry or not (worth noting, and whether strictly considered CW or not, Cast Lead entailed the use of white phosphorus munitions). And are the grim realities of bloodless corpses of a CW attack really that different than the ‘collateral damage’ visited by myriad drone strikes, or the ancillary damage of ‘shock and awe’ during the Iraq fiasco, or for that matter, the near thousand Sisi massacred in Egypt, still courtesy of our tax-dollars, before the bulldozers subsequently swept the corpses away? Regardless, and beyond these hypocrisies (of which one could catalogue many more) and the niceties of upholding norms apart (which when convenient we wholly ignored—even quietly supported their very violation--as with Saddam’s use of CW against Iranians), old-fashioned conventional weapons-based killing has frankly been a much more horrifying specter these past two and a half years of the Syria conflict than any use of CW. The bout of outrage appeared more of the Cambridge faculty room variety than the cruel realities of the blood spilled through this volatile region these past many years, with monstrously hyperbolic parallels to Hitler’s use of gas during the Holocaust an insult to any rational observer.

4) An Epidemic of Telegraphing Intent to the Enemy, or, the Cheerio Campaign: Never in recent memory was a possible military campaign so parsed, leaked, aired, tweeted, blogged, phoned, generally, a total ‘flood the zone’ phenomenon that gives new meaning to the phrase ‘open kimono’. Any element of surprise was removed, doubtless to the dismay of any sentient observer in the entire US military. Beyond this, Assad received all but an engraved invitation to wait out a putative attack, told alternatively that the action would be: a “shot across the bow”, “unbelievably small”; “just muscular enough not to get mocked”, or (perhaps the winner for most ribald): “If Assad is eating Cheerios, we’re going to take away his spoon and give him a fork. Will that degrade his ability to eat Cheerios? Yes. Will it deter him? Maybe. But he’ll still be able to eat Cheerios.” This was high camp playing pretend at soi disant norm-protection.

5) Keystone Kops Prevents Serious Alliance-Building: The above factors, taken together, led to at best a lukewarm reception to the Administration’s plans, everywhere but Ankara, Riyadh and (rapidly diminishing portions of) Paris. After all, when an Administration is lurching chaotically, has not adequately confirmed the intelligence, sanctimoniously and hyperbolically caricatures Syria as the greatest threat to international stability since Munich, and has no persuasive military, diplomatic or other strategic roadmap for what might follow the Tomahawks: well, would you go along? An indicative barometer of how hard the international sales job would prove was the flagging domestic lobbying effort-- even with 800-pound gorilla AIPAC now behind the Administration’s exertions--the Syria authorization still appeared destined for defeat domestically, even among The Hill’s ever-willing, serried lumpenproletariat ranks. Little wonder then that the going would be even tougher internationally, with the Arab League offering only tepid support short of military action (jaw-jaw about an “international global red line”, the redundancy of the verbiage meant to put lipstick on the pig of the empty rhetoric) with erstwhile allies in the grips of hyper-nationalist anti-Islamist hysteria like Egypt effectively opposed, all but rooting Bashar on. Or that our near zero ROI in Iraq was yet again revealed by comments such as these by Maliki: “History will not have mercy on us if we encourage a military attack against any Arab country or any member of the Arab League… Our brothers — the leaders of Arab countries and their peoples — should not forget that supporting a military strike against Syria will set a precedent that [can be] enforced on all Arab countries. If we accepted the strike on Syria, we would be legitimizing any prospective aggression and accepting the conducting of strikes against Egypt, Algeria, Lebanon, Yemen and all other Arab countries without exception. This is something we do not wish to befall any Arab country”. Finally, a unanimous G-20 statement could not even be cobbled together in St. Petersburg, with no BRICs support in the offing (even for rather a weak statement, China and Russia apart, Brazil and India would not play ball) and important countries like Indonesia and South Africa indicated opposition to military action as well. The emperor—even after (or perhaps partly because of) the risible saber-rattling—was effectively revealed to have no clothes, and no one but the most directly self-interested parties really wanted to come along for the ride.

6) Vlad & Sergei to the Rescue!: Amidst this veritable spectacular of incompetence, a last (to date, at least) act of loose-lipped amateurism via a John Kerry gaffe actually provided a possibly salvageable denouement via the near providential dispensation of handy exit ramp-offs. Apparently musing casually like a sententious orator in the Senate Chamber, rather than, well, a Secretary of State, and in response to a journalist's query in London, Kerry suggested immediate disarmament by Assad of his CW could stave off an attack. The Russians jumped into the abysmal policy vacuum presented by Washington’s wild bungling and corralled the Syrian Foreign Minister to make noises such an inspection and disarmament regime might be acceptable to Damascus. They will now play out the clock and steadily dilute any semblance of an international ‘coalition’ that Obama was pitiably attempting to cobble together to defend a norm he’d already abdicated defending previously on various occasions, until YouTubes finally woke him up from his slumbering disaster of a two year old train-wreck of a Syria non-policy.

Perhaps most surprising of all given the above backdrop have been the self-congratulatory plaudits among some in the pundit class which greeted Obama’s Syria speech of last night, as if something possibly momentous had been accomplished via the use of coercive diplomatic and military power. Beyond the bromides about norms and how ghastly CW usage, Obama’s speech was as empty a Presidential address as I can remember. The only newsworthy item might have been that he was dispatching his Secretary of State to Geneva to meet with his Russian counterpart, the very same one that had so nimbly outfoxed America’s ultimate policy objectives. That the main field of play was now pointing to Moscow, not Washington, spoke volumes.

Little matter. At this stage, one can only hope the shrieks, protestations and inanity of the latest Washington ‘obsession du jour’ will start to fade with the next news cycle. Otherwise, Obama must be careful lest the Syria matter consume much of the bandwidth of his second term, such as it is. He should pivot to a ‘containment-lite’ posture on Syria, effectively allowing the charade of the Russian proposal to play itself out, button-holing it best he can on the margins, despite how ultimately ineffective it will likely prove for a whole variety of factors, not least given there is a raging civil war afoot (but by all means, send in the inspectors!). If there is one smidgen of a silver lining here, the disgusting liar Assad—even as he likely ends up maintaining most of his CW stockpiles—will think quite carefully about using them again. We should count ourselves lucky that this plausible result may have resulted from such serial mismanagement. Obama should count himself similarly fortunate, before launching into a war he had nary a clue how to prosecute after first contact with the enemy in a tinderbox region on the cusp of even larger conflagrations. He should do his best to make up with Vladimir, declare something akin to victory, and move on. Basic self-respect demands it given how near total the fiasco he’s presided over. Meantime, the noisy commotion in the predictable precincts will go on (Are the Russians being honest? Or leading us on? Are we being tough enough? Etc.), speaking more to an insular provincialism seemingly unawares of how bumbling our exertions appear to most outside the Beltway. George Kennan, for one, would have wept.

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Posted by Gregory at September 11, 2013 08:19 AM | TrackBack (0)

Greg, for what you described less than two weeks ago as "palpable trigger-happiness," we're still not hearing any bombs, not seeing any shortcuts to war.

So just an FYI that with every passing day the Americans' swift sword remains tucked in its sheath, you lose credibility.

Posted by: Gold Star for Robot Boy at September 11, 2013 09:57 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"He should pivot to a ‘containment-lite’ posture on Syria, effectively allowing the charade of the Russian proposal to play itself out, button-holing it best he can on the margins, despite how ultimately ineffective it will likely prove for a whole variety of factors, not least given there is a raging civil war afoot (but by all means, send in the inspectors!). "

Doesn't this appear to be exactly the track we now find ourselves on? Why the long face?

It seems to be the curse of all knowledgeable foreign policy observers - yourself certainly included - to over-attribute import to each aspect of the messy minutia of muddling through modern diplomacy. Just look at all the byzantine twists and turns you describe above, in your typical over-wrought language ("he emperor—even after (or perhaps partly because of) the risible saber-rattling—was effectively revealed to have no clothes, and no one but the most directly self-interested parties really wanted to come along for the ride." Really???), like you are auditioning for a Poly Sci Bulwer-Lytton, all to say nothing more than countries have their own goals and interests, and that US aims are often frustrated. No kidding. It doesn't describe a dysfunctional administration - it describes the real world.

The fact of that matter is that, as noted above, every day that goes by without US intervention into yet another internecine Middle East conflict is a victory - regardless of how the administration may or may not have blundered into the correct choice.

Posted by: carcin at September 11, 2013 12:22 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

While I understand how you feel and have been there myself all week I think maybe you are getting a bad case of cold war nostalgia. I mean really, George Kennen? He was a genius and all but that was then and this is now. The world is not the same and the choices are not the same so the strategies and implementation thereof can't be the same. We most certainly cannot deal with Putin the same way we dealt with the USSR. He's neither clearly our friend or our enemy but representing a rival power with it's own interests. It appears to me that Obama's efforts have been focused mainly on getting Putin to step up policing his own sphere or influence. I understand that freaks a of people out but I think they just have to suck it up. This is where we are now.

Posted by: John Baker at September 11, 2013 01:22 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

carcin, I won't presume to speak for Greg, but it seems to me that there is likely to be some non-trivial cost to the U.S. in getting to our current state, that could have avoided if people had simply been more adept at being quiet. I am always a little bit surprised that ostensibly intelligent people just cannot shut up when it is advisable.

I, too, welcome the blunder in the right direction, however.

Posted by: Will Allen at September 11, 2013 03:03 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


Posted by: Adams at September 11, 2013 03:39 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

tks for your comments. no time to address point by point criticisms, but meantime pls see here best, gd

Posted by: greg djerejian at September 11, 2013 08:26 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

You know, Syria can't use its CW arsenal now without making Putin look like an impotent fool. I think it's fair to presume that Assad has incentive enough to avoid that outcome. Isn't that victory enough?

Posted by: CharleyCarp at September 11, 2013 08:49 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Will: Noted, and agreed.

I was way too harsh on Greg, whose insights I've always found among the more sobering and pragmatic (and therefore, valuable) of all the blog commentaries. Had I a chance to compose a more reflective response, I would likely have just noted that, though his various point are each more or less arguable, but certainly plausible, the focus on _process_ and posturing rather ill-suited today's realities. John Baker came along and said it without the unnecessary cheap shots. I apologize, Greg.

Posted by: carcin at September 11, 2013 08:50 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

CharleyCarp,, I think it would be more accurate to say he has to forgo using them for 8-10 months, which isn't much of a victory, if my guess of what the cost was of purchasing it is somewhat accurate.

Posted by: Will Allen at September 11, 2013 09:52 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

carcin: no need for apologies. thick skin and all that. and re your Bulwer-Lytton comment, as I've said before, if I wrote full-time, sure i'd love an editor (doesn't help either that I need to write in significant haste snatching windows of time when possible). re john baker's comment, in interests of full disclosure, George Kennan is a personal hero of mine, fyi. my introducing him into the discussion was less cold war nostalgia than his concern about foreign policy making in a mass democracy, and how it could often lend to immature/suboptimal results. best, gd

Posted by: greg djerejian at September 11, 2013 10:20 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

CharleyCarp.....there is little definitive evidence WHO used the weapons. That seems obvious...but somehow it need repeating.

Posted by: jonst at September 12, 2013 06:54 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

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Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.

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