Sunday, September 15, 2013

Getting It Done Right

With the United States and Russia agreeing on a protocol for Syria to follow for surrendering its chemical weapons arsenal; with the Syrian ambassador to the UN formally agreeing to adhere to the chemical weapons treaty, including allowing UN inspectors to weapon sites; with diplomacy moving forward even in the midst of a brutal civil war; all this, and the question on too many lips is: Was Obama duped, first by his Secretary of State then by Russian President Vladimir Putin, in to accepting a diplomatic solution that appears to weaken the United States?

It is both unanswerable (at least at this point) and irrelevant whether Kerry's remarks on Monday about a possible diplomatic solution were a "gaffe" that got out of control or part of a much larger strategy that included a threat to use force as a cudgel to beat Syria to the bargaining table.  Whether it was or not, the Obama Administration took it and ran with it in ways both smart and timely.  The President's much anticipated speech on Tuesday night included a plea for Congress to postpone a vote on the authorization to use military force to let the diplomats get their work done.  This comes just a few days after it was thought he was going to lay out a case for military action alone.

One feature this week was the New York Times op-ed appearing under Vladimir Putin's name that many on the right - and not a few on the left - thought was wonderful for any number of reasons.  As someone who has read a few things about international relations in my time, I found the contents neither surprising nor interesting.  They were, in fact, the kinds of things a foreign leader would say to the people of another country: trying to flatter the people at the expense of their leader in order to create mistrust and disagreement.  The fact remains that Putin said nothing that the Obama Administration wasn't already in the midst of doing.  The tongue bath Putin received from American conservatives was odd, unless one considers that he is (a) pretty hard-core in his reactionary positions; (b) playing by a rule book American conservatives understand (brute force plus ruthlessness plus a disdain for social and political and diplomatic niceties; and (c) the kind of leader too many on the right wish America had, i.e., one who is white, authoritarian, and unafraid to keep things simple and direct even if that means trampling the lives of others.  American conservatives have loved dictators since the 1920's, when they heaped praise upon Mussolini.  Since then, fascists from Franco through the Greek military junta of the 1970's, Pinochet in Chile - well, really, pretty much any Central or South American dictator in the 60's and 70's was the subject of much American praise, official and otherwise - and the Shah of Iran have all been held up by American conservatives as "statesmen".  Shoot, Lyndon Johnson said that Ngo Dihn Diem of South Vietnam was the Winston Churchill of southeast Asia!

There are many things that remain the be done.  There are many steps that need to be taken, and with Syria in the midst of a bloody civil war, those steps are made far more difficult.  There are many questions that I think are important to ask, including whether chemical weapons are different in kind from conventional weapons, which renders the hundreds dead because of them in Syria of some kind of different importance than the nearly 100,00 who have already been killed while the United States sat on its hands.  This last, in particular is an important question, and deserves some discussion.  All the same, at the moment international law sees such weapons just that way; the President reminded the American people, and the rest of the world, of that; the diplomats in Washington and New York and Geneva are doing the grunt work while the world watches, a far better way to verify than a UN inspection regime.  All this because of the deft way President Obama has spoken and acted over the past couple weeks.

As  far as I'm concerned, this justifies his Nobel Peace Prize.  Even with his initial martial bluster, or perhaps because of it, an international outlier long criticized for its refusal to conform to international law on chemical weapons has, in the midst of an ongoing, bloody, and still-inconclusive civil war, agreed to abide by the terms of the chemical weapons convention.  These are good things.

Good job, President Obama.  No.  Most excellent, Mr. President.  Thank you for reminding us that diplomacy can and does work.

Virtual Tin Cup

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