Obama's Syria Pause Only Delaying the Inevitable
Rule No. 1 in the Middle East is this: The only thing you can count on is sudden and dramatic change.
Rule No. 2: The Middle East makes fools of optimists.
Rule No. 3: Political projects involving many moving parts and many competing ideologies will most likely fail. The Arab-Israeli peace process comes to mind, as does the invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring. Add to this list now the nascent global effort, inspired by the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin, to remove from Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad's hands several hundred tons of chemical weapons.
The Bloomberg View editorial on this chemical-weapons project, which was also the subject of President Barack Obama's no-one-is-sure-why-he's-making-this-speech speech last night, states: "The Russian proposal is worth pursuing because, if successful, it would be more effective than airstrikes in preventing the further use of chemical weapons."
All true, except that there's very little chance here of success. Virtually none, in fact.
Why? Because the process of securing several hundred tons of chemical weapons, and thousands of warheads and rockets, would take years, even if Syria were at peace. The U.S. has been destroying its chemical weapons stocks for roughly 15 years, and it still isn't finished. In Syria, Hezbollah and al-Qaeda, among others, are struggling violently, even nihilistically, for supremacy. So how would the “international community” -- which is actually a chimera, as Russia and China, which possess veto power on the United Nations Security Council, have shown us -- secure all of these chemical weapons? With boots on the ground? Well, the best boots in the chemical-weapons-eradication business belong to Americans. Are we going to place American weapons inspectors between Hezbollah and al-Qaeda? Especially after last year's terrorist attacks on the American diplomatic mission in Libya?
Other reasons that this Russian-inspired diplomatic pause is an illusion: It isn't plausible to think that Assad would truly give up his chemical-weapons capability. Has he done anything, ever, to suggest that he would unilaterally disarm in this manner? And why would Russia, which is Assad's main weapons supplier, participate with sincerity and alacrity in this process?
I agree that the Russian proposal is worth pursuing, but not because I think it will be successful. I think it's worth pursuing because Syrian noncompliance will help buttress the case for tougher action. Not missile strikes, necessarily -- I've been dubious about those -- but a new commitment to a long-term strategy of regime change.
In this extended pause -- a pause in which John Kerry, the secretary of state, will be traveling to Geneva to get into arguments with his Russian counterpart, and in which Americans (and all the West) can return to their default position of not paying attention to Syria's mass slaughter -- Assad will be able to sleep well at night, knowing that no punishment is coming for his astonishing violation of a baseline norm of civilization, much less for his astonishing acts of murder committed with conventional weapons. For those, he is perfectly safe. Remember a couple of years ago, when the (rhetorical) position of the U.S. was that Assad should go? Well, after two years of saying that Assad should go, the message is now that Assad can stay, just minus one piece of his arsenal.
When I posted the previous thought on Twitter last night, in reaction to the president's speech, Ben Rhodes, his deputy national security adviser, wrote back, "US position remains Assad leaving power as part of political process. But we must also act to specifically remove CW threat."
One surefire way to remove the chemical-weapons threat, though, is to remove the regime that uses chemical weapons. Millions of Syrians are waiting for the White House to embrace this truth.
This much can be said in the president's favor: His speech did keep the pressure on, in some form. The Russians are on notice that he's still contemplating military action. That isn't much, but it's something. And he's making himself look statesmanlike in comparison to many Republicans on Capitol Hill, who apparently have no interest in, or knowledge of, American responsibilities in the world -- responsibilities we have fulfilled since we created the post-World War II international order. Obama remains an internationalist who is seeking, in a flawed and sometimes scattershot way, to convince the U.S., and its allies, that we have obligations in the world.
Another rule of the Middle East is that it can sink presidencies. To Obama's credit, it hasn't sunk his. Yet. Glenn Thrush, of Politico, wrote this on Twitter: “Perspective on Obama's many screw-ups on Syria: they are NOTHING compared 2 Bush-Iraq, Reagan-Lebanon, Carter-Iran, LBJ-Nam.”
The next real test for the president comes not when his jet-lagged secretary of state inadvertently floats another fantastical idea, but when it becomes clear that Putin and Assad are playing games and that the plan being discussed isn't credible. Then Obama will have to try once again to convince Congress that American leadership on this issue is a moral, strategic and political necessity. And if Congress doesn't listen, he will have to make decisions by himself.
(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)