It’s difficult to recall how less than two weeks ago the country was on tenterhooks not about whether the country and the public will be taken over the brink by a group of economic fundamentalists in Congress, but about whether the nation would be going to war in Syria. The President was being attacked on all sides: by neoconservatives for being weak and ineffectual; by liberal supporters for failing to set concrete goals that they could defend to their constituents; by the isolationist right for contemplating intervention abroad; and by the more internationalist and anti-war left, for an aimless rush to a punitive and illegal war.
In the course of a day, it all changed, and thanks to what was on the surface a surprise Russian intervention, the President was preparing to dispatch diplomats to negotiate a handover of Syria’s chemical weapons to international control. Republicans continued to spit fury, partly because they had been deprived of an opportunity to defeat the President in Congress, but the nation as a whole seemed to breathe a sigh of relief, and proceeded to banish Syria to the back burner to return to our preoccupation with the lives of celebrities.
I think the President made the right call in seizing the diplomatic opportunity and kennelling the dogs of war. The punitive bombing campaign he was threatening to order would only have escalated violence within Syria, shown the same contempt for international law demonstrated by Assad, and embroiled the U.S. in another conflict under our own steam.
It remains to be seen whether the lengthy and complicated process of securing and disposing of Syria’s chemical weapons will be successful, although the Assad government has just met the first step in the process. But there was a little something for everyone in the President’s policy-shift and the speech initially expected to launch a barrage of cruise missiles which instead announced a diplomatic breakthrough.
Assad’s government received a lease on life and a dose of legitimacy. Vladimir Putin was able to pose as the preeminent global statesman, having upstaged the President. Obama was able to back out of a Congressional vote he was almost certain to lose, while saving face. U.S. warmongers at least got the satisfaction of seeing the President’s brinkmanship bring a “rogue state” to heel. Anti-war opinion was able to draw a hand across a moist brow. Israel got a confirmation of the “unshakeable support” of the U.S. for its own violation of international law. Iran was not drawn into conflict with the U.S. And jingos got the predictably vacuous line about “American exceptionaism”.
While I don’t fault the President’s actions in that situation, I find something dispiriting in the speech, because there was one party with an interest in the matter which was quite conspicuously left out: the Syrian citizens subject to daily violence. It is extraordinary how transparently opportunistic all the President’s earlier concern for the well-being of Syrian citizens has been proven to be. He confirmed that his concern in Syria is primarily about enforcing an international restraint on the use of chemical weapons (a concern notably absent when it comes to U.S. ally Israel), and not about humanitarianism broadly writ.
Ultimately, probably ten times as many Syrians have been killed by conventional weapons as chemical weapons, and barring further diplomatic developments, the civil war shows no sign of stopping. Some of the more sadistic right-wing commentators in the United States have remarked that the U.S. should fan the flames of war in Syria to keep our “enemies” killing one another.
So what are the takeaways from the “solution” that emerged to Syria, from the U.S. perspective? That, driven by right-wing isolationists and left-wing internationalists, there is little appetite for U.S. military intervention abroad (although the former support the export of American terrorism). That the kind of brinkmanship which will someday explode in our faces “works” in that Obama was able to force a diplomatic “solution” by acting like a maniac and waving bombs around. And that the big global powers take a very cynical and selective approach to backing up international law and protecting people from violence. After all, the U.S., Russia, Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea all possess weapons with an infinitely greater capacity—a terminal capacity, in fact—to wreak havoc on the world.
I’m pleased that the U.S. did not go to war in Syria. But I’m worried about what the circumstances surrounding international meddling in the on-going civil war there suggests about our collective capacity to create a just and fair society in the world.