“Speak softly, and carry a big stick.”
-Theodore Roosevelt, Twenty-sixth U.S. President (1901-1909)
Before using an apparent case of diplomatic misspeak by his chief foreign policy lieutenant this week, President Obama seemed committed to pushing for any approval or authorization he could muster to justify a military action against Syria. Whether secretary of State John Kerry deliberately threw out an alternative or just stumbled onto one, he effectively opened the door for a non-military solution to the dilemma Obama created for himself by earlier inventing a “red line,” which, if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad crossed it, would trigger a U.S. military reprisal.
That red line was identified by Obama as the use of chemical weapons by Assad against his own people in the ongoing civil war being waged against his regime in his country. Having committed himself to a decidedly hawkish position, Obama was then stuck in a Bush-like stance when evidence clearly pointed to just such action by Assad. And, as if he had suddenly found a new image for himself, the U.S. President immediately announced his intention to punish Assad by launching an air attack (presumably against some of Assad’s chemical stockpiles, assuming their whereabouts were known to U.S. intelligence).
The community of nations reacted with predictable pushback to Obama’s idea, refusing, one-by-one, to approve of such an attack, let alone to join in it. Rebuffed by the likes of Great Britain and Germany, not to mention China and Russia, Obama then turned to Congress, where he took his case last week. When the committee hearings went less than smoothly, with Kerry this time fumbling a hypothetical by suggesting that Obama might well put boots on the ground if events warranted it, the plan to get authorization was again in trouble. At which point, seemingly out of the blue, Kerry answered a reporter’s question by saying that what Assad could do to avoid the onslaught of U.S. missiles would be to turn over all his chemical weapons to the international community. That act, Kerry seemed to suggest, would remove the need for U.S. military action, because Assad would then be powerless to gas his people anymore.
Of course, it’s all a charade. What has really happened is that Obama and his advisors have figured out that no one wants to run the risk of seeing the United States in another endless, winless war in that part of the world, especially when U.S. interests are really not at stake (humanitarian interests, it should be noted, don’t count in this regard). And that “no one” starts with the American people who, quite rightly, don’t want American dollars and its young men and women wasted on such an effort.
But quite apart from public sentiment, the case against U.S. military action in Syria starts with the fact that it would be illegal, even with Congressional authorization. To be specific, it would be a violation of international law, which holds that any military act against a sovereign state that is undertaken without either authorization from the international community or in response to an attack on its own soil is illegal. And the Obama plan to bomb Syria for allegedly using chemical weapons would most certainly constitute such an act.
Here’s the thing: Even a single missile fired without provocation on a sovereign state is an act of war. The perpetrators of such acts are war criminals. Note: what Assad does within his own borders is not covered by this rule, but what Obama would do in Syria by launching a missile attack is.
So let’s give Obama a break and say that he blustered a tad too much in drawing his red line and assume that wiser counsels will now prevail to prevent him from following the path of his most recent predecessor into a foolish military excursion into a part of the world that is a hornet’s nest of trouble. What are his alternatives now?
The Russians, picking up on Kerry’s misspeak, have offered the first, which is to seek from Assad the relinquishment of all his chemical weapons. Assad claims his regime hasn’t used the weapons in the civil war and implicit in that claim must be the pledge that he never would. At least that interpretation of his remarks should be tested. Let the Russians take credit for defusing the situation. It gets Obama off the hook (a hook a wiser leader never would have created in the first place), and lets the rest of the international community step up and take some responsibility for the way these weapons are treated.
Assuming, as would likely be the case, that Assad refuses to give up his stockpile (or delays and obfuscates to the point of making efforts to get them from his control fruitless), he can still be dissuaded from using them by active diplomacy from the international community. Here is where Obama could lead effectively and majestically. Instead of calling on allies to join him in military action, he could rally support for sanctions and economic reprisals against Assad’s regime. No blood need be shed to persuade a thug like Assad to fight the rebels with conventional weaponry, if that is indeed Obama’s goal.
I note only in passing that while death by chemical weapons may be horrific, the end result is no less devastating for the deceased’s survivors than death by conventional weaponry. The United States, for example, killed far more civilians in the carpet bombing of Japanese cities at the end of World War II than it did by dropping the two infamous atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The lesson that Obama must learn is that an impulse to wage war is too easily aroused when you are the world’s sole super-power. True leadership requires marshaling world opinion against war, not towards it. And a true visionary would fight hard against the impulse to use military might, knowing that each bomb dropped creates that many more destroyed families and mortal enemies.
In the end, regimes like Assad’s will be defeated by those he has oppressed. Obama can best help that cause by speaking loudly and sheathing his big sticks.