Thursday, September 12, 2013

The threat that worked—in an unexpected and indirect way (Nick Kristof)

According to various old sayings, God and fate often move in mysterious ways.  The same is often true of politics, both domestic and international.

After the August 12 poison gas attacks in the outskirts of Damascus, which were almost certainly carried out by the Syrian regime, Obama and his administration were quite right to insist that there had to be a serious international response.  Contrary to some suggestions that gassing civilians is really not such a big deal, this was a serious and blatant violation of a broadly accepted taboo prohibiting the use of poison gas in warfare, against either soldiers or civilians, that has been built up and maintained with considerable success (despite some conspicuous and reprehensible exceptions) over the past century.  Maintaining that taboo ought to be an important and urgent priority, not just for the US, but for the so-called "international community" as a whole.

That's true whichever side different governments support in the Syrian civil war.  I want to emphasize this point, because a lot of current discussions seem to miss it.  The problem of maintaining the taboo against the use of poison gas is in some ways distinct from, and broader than, questions having to do with the outcome of the Syrian civil war.  Deterring further use of poison gas by the Assad regime (or, hypothetically, by its opponents) and reinforcing the international ban against poison gas will not, by themselves, offer a solution to the ongoing Syrian catastrophe.  But that's not the point here.

However, as soon as the Obama administration announced that it was putting together a US-led coalition for punitive military strikes against the Assad regime, everything began to go wrong.  The US lost its most significant European partner in this enterprise when the British Parliament unexpectedly rejected Prime Minister Cameron's request for authorization.  And although the French government is still committed to taking action, nobody else agreed to join in or offer explicit public support, and it looked increasingly likely that the US would be isolated (except for France) if it took military action.  Then Obama, correctly in my opinion, decided to go to Congress for authorization before acting.  But it seemed increasingly likely that his request would be decisively rejected when it came to a vote.  The whole enterprise appeared to be headed for a humiliating debacle, with unfortunate consequences for the Obama presidency and, both directly and indirectly, for the US role in the world and the prospects for limiting or deterring the future use of poison gas.

Then the Russian government, picking up on what seems to have been a gaffe by Kerry, launched a diplomatic initiative that may, bizarrely enough, have saved Obama from a humiliating political defeat and may also, even more bizarrely, turn a bungled initiative headed for disaster into a major triumph for international diplomacy.  I have to emphasize the word "may" here, because at the moment everything is speculative and uncertain.  And I'm still trying to figure out (along with a lot of other people) just what Putin is up to. But it seems clear that both the Assad regime and the Russian government were genuinely worried about the prospect of a US military strike, with its potentially unpredictable consequences.  As Foreign Policy reported on Tuesday:
[On Monday] Secretary of State John Kerry said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could avoid an American military strike by giving up his chemical weapons, an unscripted and off-handed remark that triggered a mad day of diplomatic scrambling and raised the first real prospect of a peaceful end to the Syrian crisis. [....]

A few hours after Kerry spoke, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow that Russia would support putting Syria's chemical weapon storage sites under international control before "their subsequent destruction."  "We don't know whether Syria will agree with this, but if the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in the country will prevent attacks, then we will immediately begin work with Damascus," Lavrov said.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, appearing with Lavrov in Moscow, said his country welcomed the Russian proposal and was prepared to act on it "to avert American aggression against out people."

The Obama administration reacted much more cautiously, noting that Lavrov had provided no timetables or details about how his idea would work in practice, but White House officials didn't dismiss the Russian plan out of hand.  [....]  By this evening, President Obama seemed receptive to the Russian proposal. In a series of interviews, he called it  a "modestly positive development" and said he would hold off on a strike if Assad relinquished his chemical weapons.  [....]
We can presume that Putin's agenda here is primarily to protect the Assad regime with a strategy of delay and distraction.  And although the Syrian regime now claims that it will agree to dismantle its chemical-weapons stockpile under international supervision (which is a pretty big deal for a regime that previously refused to admit that it even had a chemical-weapons stockpile), there are good reasons to be skeptical about whether this will actually happen (in whole or in part). People who raise those doubts are probably right, but they're missing the main point.

The main point is that it doesn't seem entirely implausible that (a) while this whole diplomatic game is being dragged out, the Syrian regime will be deterred from further use of poison gas, and (b) in the process, the international taboo against the use of poison gas would be strongly reinforced.  So Putin gets to play the part of an important and constructive actor on the world stage, and at the same time Obama may wind up getting essentially what he wanted—without actually bombing Syrian targets. IF that happens (and again, that's a big if), it would be a very lucky break for Obama & Kerry and very good news for all of us.  One complication—and there are many—is that Putin and Assad will continue to go through the motions of acting responsibly only as long as a credible threat of US military action remains, and maintaining that threat while the diplomatic horse-trading goes on may be tricky.

It's also possible (I'm just speculating) that Assad's main backers, Russia and Iran, have their own reasons for preferring to see him stick to "conventional" weapons and avoid using poison gas.  (After all, the Russians were able to totally devastate Chechnya, and crush the rebellion there, without poison gas.) We know poison gas is a sensitive issue for the Iranians, who were the target of massive poison gas attacks during the Iran-Iraq war, and some prominent figures in Iran have expressed public qualms about the use of poison gas in Syria.  And Putin may worry that the spectacle of a Ba'athist dictatorship conspicuously gassing civilians in large numbers could generate public-relations problems with international public opinion.  If so  then Putin may have seen this situation as giving him some leverage to pressure Assad away from the use of chemical weapons.  At all events, we still have to see how all this works out.

=>  I was planning to write a more extensive post about these (peculiar) developments and their (still uncertain) implications.  But when I read Nick Kristof's column in today's New York Times, I saw that he had beaten me to it.  So mostly I'll just quote from his column.  The title gets right to the key point:  "That Threat Worked":
For all you innumerable skeptics of President Obama’s calls for military strikes on Syria, consider this:

For decades, Syria has refused to confirm that it has chemical weapons. Now, facing a limited strike, its position abruptly changed to: Oh! We do have them after all! And we want to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention! We want to show them to United Nations inspectors.

In short, the mere flexing of military power worked — initially and tentatively. And while it seems that neither Congress nor the public has any appetite for cruise missile strikes on Syria, it will be critical to keep the military option alive in the coming weeks or Russia and Syria will play us like a yo-yo.

Frankly, I’m skeptical that a deal can be worked out in which Syria hands over its chemical weaponry, and President Obama may have exchanged a losing struggle with Congress with a Sisyphean struggle with Russia. But it’s not impossible. And even if Syria cheated and stalled and eventually handed over only half of its chemical arsenal and none of its biological arsenal, that would still be a huge win for global security.

So here’s a three-track strategy for Syria going forward:

• Negotiate with Moscow on removal of Syrian chemical weapons and insist on conditions to ensure we’re not being played, including immediate disclosure to the United Nations of chemical weapons stockpiles, a binding Security Council resolution confirming the deal, a reference in the resolution to “serious consequences” for noncompliance, and immediate installation of camera monitors on at least a few locations.

• Groundwork in Congress to authorize a limited missile strike if Syria does not comply, partly to retain leverage with Moscow.

• Expansion of efforts to arm and support moderate Syrian rebels, accompanied by covert cyberwarfare on the Syrian regime, to try to change the momentum on the ground. [....]
That third point is different from the first two, since it has to do with overall US (and western) policies concerning the Syrian civil war rather than the more specific question of chemical weapons—an issue that, as I noted earlier, has implications not restricted to Syria. So in some ways Kristof's first two points can stand on their own, and they're correct whether or not one agrees with his third point.

However, I do want to add that I've become increasingly convinced that the strategy indicated in Kristof's third point is probably the one that the US and other western countries should have been following from the earliest stages of Syria's civil war—even though, in this context, the word "moderate" has to be treated in skeptical and very relative terms. (Some of the reasons why that was probably the best policy, considering the realistically available alternatives, are explained here & here & here & here.)  It's worth considering the possibility that this (potential) opportunity has been missed, and it's now too late to pursue that strategy effectively.  But it still looks like the least bad option available.

=> Meanwhile, Kristof adds some intelligent remarks on how we should think about the relationship between military force and diplomacy ... and reminds some of his correspondents that it's simply not true that humanitarian interventions never work:
Longtime readers know that I adamantly opposed the Iraq war and Afghan surge, oppose strikes on Iranian nuclear sites, and tend to think we overinvest in military tools and underinvest in diplomatic ones. So many readers were stunned that I’ve endorsed missile strikes on Syria — and I’m hearing screams of betrayal.

“You can’t kill people to show that it’s wrong to kill people,” Christine protested on my Facebook page.

“When has violence, killing and aggression helped anything,” demanded Jan, also on Facebook.

The answer is: Sierra Leone, Mali, Ivory Coast, Bosnia and Kosovo. In each of those countries, an outside military force intervened at minimal cost and saved large numbers of lives. In several (as Clausewitz would have predicted), war buttressed diplomacy and helped achieve peace agreements.

We think of warfare in binary terms, as if our options are invasions or nothing at all, but that’s misleading. All-out wars have a poor record, but modest interventions of the kind President Obama is talking about in Syria have a more successful (though still mixed) history.

That’s even true in Iraq, although I hate to mention the word because it sends a shudder up every reader’s spine. While the war that began in 2003 was a disaster, two limited interventions succeeded in Iraq. One was President Clinton’s 1998 bombing of Iraqi military sites for a few days (maybe the closest parallel to Obama’s plan for Syria); it may have convinced Saddam Hussein to abandon W.M.D. programs. The other is the no-fly zone over Iraq’s Kurdish areas in the 1990s to prevent a genocide there. They were limited uses of force that proceeded so smoothly that they are hardly remembered.

“War is obviously terrible, but it’s not the ultimate evil,” notes Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Some things are worse, and one is the deliberate slaughter of civilians.”

Human Rights Watch doesn’t take a position on a strike on Syria, and Roth notes that military intervention isn’t the first tool to reach for to prevent mass atrocities. Sometimes armed intervention hurts. Sometimes it helps. We’re left to decide on a case-by-case basis.

In Syria, for two-and-a-half years, we’ve given the regime a green light, and the killing has escalated from 5,000 a year to 5,000 a month — and, last month, to a poison gas attack that was perhaps the biggest massacre in the war. Now Obama’s threat of military strikes has turned the light yellow, Syria is scrambling to adjust, and there is some hope of a diplomatic solution.

Let’s not allow the light to go green again.
One caveat:  Developments over the past week may offer "some hope for a diplomatic solution" regarding the issue of poison gas, and the very important agenda of maintaining the taboo against using poison gas in warfare. I see no reason to expect that this opens up any prospects for a "diplomatic solution" to Syria's civil war. That's a separate matter. But something is better than nothing.

Otherwise, almost everything else Kristof says here strikes me as right and well put (and I'll just let the exceptions go).

—Jeff Weintraub