Bad News

09.12.13

Syria: What Have We Learned?

The sad truth is that we’ve learned the Obama team wasted two years without a viable strategy, blundered further in recent days, but just might be saved by its latest faux pas if the Syrians—with Russian prodding—improbably hand over their chemical weapons to the U.N., argues Leslie H. Gelb.

The Obama administration violated the fundamental rule incessantly invoked by my Hungarian immigrant Jewish mother: “When you don’t know what you’re doing, don’t mix in.”

Well, President Obama “mixed in” in Syria two years ago without the semblance of a coherent strategy. It’s a sorry record. Mr. Obama’s reputation and clout have suffered. All should be grateful, however, that he’s not committed the ultimate sin of giving a bunch of unknown rebels massive military aid, establishing complicated no-fly zones, and putting American boots on the ground. He’s committed costly diplomatic gaffes, not military ones. Here’s the record:

When the Syrian civil war erupted more than two years ago, Obama said his central goal was the removal of Syrian dictator and President Bashar al-Assad. Alas, there was one small problem. He took no military action—aid to rebels or U.S. air attacks—that might cause Assad to fall. Not even remotely close.

Then our president announced that he wanted a political settlement. One problem here, too. He couldn’t get a political resolution without negotiating with Assad—and he wouldn’t negotiate with Assad. (In recent weeks the Obama team has not repeated its insistence on Assad’s departure, but that just might be inadvertent. Or maybe not.)

Kerry was trying to sell the case for military action with the testimonial equivalent of Falstaffian soliloquies.

Then came Obama’s famous “red lines,” threatening dire but undefined punishment of Assad should he dare to use chemical weapons. After initial presumed uses, the White House kept quite mum, saying only they were trying to find out who did it. Then more chemical attacks were followed by Obama administration pledges to provide more and better arms to the rebels we never seemed to know much about. (Indeed, the only ones who seemed to really know the rebels were American neoconservatives who said they were trustworthy guys who were taking good care to limit the power of rebel jihadis (yeah, sure).) There hasn’t been much evidence that the administration actually delivered more and better arms, but who wants to be picky?

Then came the big chemical-weapons attack of August 21 in which more than 1,000 were killed, mostly civilians and many children. Suddenly Obama remembered his red line and moved the U.S. into place to smack Assad good.

But then, as a true Democrat and constitutionalist, Mr. Obama decided to obtain congressional permission. He dispatched his biggest and best guns to testify. Joint Chiefs chairman Martin Dempsey acquitted himself quite well. Most of the time, he sat there with a pained expression on his face and tried to avoid answering questions so as not to show up his colleagues at the table. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke even more infrequently and then only to repeat what others had said. He was not going to embarrass himself with rhetorical flourishes.

Secretary of State John Kerry testified as if he were still chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was trying to sell the case for military action with the testimonial equivalent of Falstaffian soliloquies. (Sen. John McCain dealt with these extended remarks by playing poker on his iPad.) And Kerry missed no opportunity to nail points by providing supportive misinformation. For example, he assured his former senatorial colleagues that al Qaeda was not among the Syrian rebels. To be fair, it is not clear that Kerry lost any votes for the White House drive to gain congressional support. But it is clear that he didn’t gain many, if any.

(Just to further touch up the historical record, it has to be noted that Obama did not seek and therefore did not gain congressional support for taking weeks of military action against Libya. Thus his declamations Tuesday night to the American people of his devotion to congressional approval for acts of war must be of fairly recent vintage. And that devotion was not apparent, even a few weeks ago when Obama first dispatched and readied the U.S. Navy to attack Syria.)

Now we come to Kerry’s marquee performance where the proverbial diplomatic rhetoric hit the fan. Some troublemaker asked Kerry whether there was any way to avoid U.S. military action. Off the top of his head, as a longstanding foreign-policy expert, Kerry responded that Syria might agree to give up its chemical weapons to an international authority. With these words, Kerry opened the door to either destruction or salvation. His State Department colleagues and the White House seemed to reckon on the destruction alternative. And so a State Department flack was instructed to say that Kerry’s musings were mere “rhetoric.” In other words, his words didn’t mean a damn thing.

But the Russians predictably saw opportunity in that mere rhetoric, and they quickly turned the secretary’s throwaway line into a formal proposal for Syria to acknowledge its chemical-weapons stock and turn it over to United Nations care. And within minutes, the Syrian government accepted this brilliant idea. I’m virtually certain they could not believe their good luck. Kerry had given them the opening to block the American military strike on Syria.

Now, some naive souls appear to believe that Putin was trying to earn the Nobel Peace Prize and truly wanted to compel Assad to hand over his chemical stockpiles. But if true, why didn’t Moscow propose this a week or two weeks ago? Whatever the motivation, the effect of the Russian initiative, and Syria’s generously acceding to it, has stopped cold—at least for some time—any U.S. military action.

It should not be forgotten that soon after this interesting turn of events, the administration wanted to show, quite properly, that it had not abandoned the need to strike Syria. Indeed, the president began insisting that Russian and Syrian virtual capitulation on the chemicals was due to American threats. (To be fair, they may be right on this point.) But then Mr. Kerry spoiled the effect of the tough talk once again.

In order to be able to continue the threats, he felt he needed to reassure Congress that future U.S. attacks would be “unbelievably small.” The effect of this characterization so undercut the White House’s muscle flexing that Obama felt impelled to quickly correct the record. And thus he said in his Tuesday-night address to the nation that the U.S. didn’t do “pinpricks.”

Now Congress is enmeshed in a tangle of conflicting resolutions about going to war and not going to war, about diplomacy and less diplomacy. The evanescent United Nations is also embroiled in a tangle of resolutions, some calling for simply denuding Syria of its chemical weapons and some saying that if Syria fails to do so, it will face military force.

Maybe coherent resolutions will emerge from the inevitable jockeying. Maybe nothing much will eventuate at all. These resolutions are not an easy matter, especially when the parties involved are not entirely clear about American policy or resolve.

In any event, two things can be said in conclusion. First, for all the administration’s evident weaknesses, the president has not committed the unalterable and unpardonable sin of getting Americans involved in a Syrian war. Instead the costs have been to American credibility and power, which is quite serious. But the costs to date have not been in American lives or treasure, and for this, we should be grateful. Second, whatever the true purposes of Moscow and Damascus, whether they seek a deal or just a delay, it is their diplomatic game for the moment, and Washington must play it out. The Obama team rightly shouts that its patience will be very short, but it will take weeks to sort things out.

The main lesson to be learned from the last two years is that whatever happens with these resolutions, the Obama White House must now have a coherent strategy for Syria. At this moment, no strategy can solve the Syria problem. Indeed, promoting yet another new one would be a mistake. The only viable strategy at this point is to help prevent things from getting worse.