Is Obama in retreat?
At the present hour, with 110,000 Syrians dead and 2 million displaced, after the massacre of August 21 and those that led up to it, after two and a half years of shutting our eyes to a war against a civilian population that has gone from one atrocity to another, what was one more week to Syria? Maybe the American president is right after all to call for a little more time, to try to rally Congress behind his decision to strike Damascus and thereby to imbue the promised action with as much democratic legitimacy as possible.
The pause will allow him to lay out clearly the conclusive evidence of the chemical massacre to those of his fellow citizens who are prone to conspiracy theories and suspicious of official explanations.
It will give him an opportunity to remind Americans that the recent chemical attack was not a mistake or a misstep but rather the strategy of a regime that has one of the largest inventories of dirty weapons on the planet.
It will permit him to alert the United States and its allies that the size of those stocks, the number and range of the delivery vehicles available to turn them into bombs, the sophistication of the special units responsible for deploying these weapons, and the intricacy of the units that manage Syria’s clandestine operations abroad constitute a danger not just for the Syrian people but also for Syria’s neighbors and the world.
It will give him time to respond to those who claim to fear that forceful action might “destabilize the region.” As if it weren’t destabilized already! Could there be any worse source of instability than a regime that harbors such weapons and is determined to use them?
It will give him time to respond to the bizarre objection of those who, high on the propaganda of sovereign impunity, see in Bashar al-Assad a “bulwark against Islamism.” A bulwark against Islamism? Really? The ally of Iran? The ayatollahs’ bridge into the Arab world? Seriously? A bulwark against Islamism? The regime that for nearly 15 years has sheltered the political arm of Hamas (that is, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood), the regime that is therefore the spearhead of one of the most radical forms of fundamentalism? A bulwark against Islamism? The man who is Hezbollah’s patron, who helps to finance and arm it, and who calls in assault teams to rescue it in Homs and al-Qusayr?
The pause will allow Obama to use his eloquence to remind us that the peace of the world depends in large part on the deterrent power and thus on the credibility of America’s word—and that an America that shrinks before Assad today will lack even the faintest credibility when the time comes to dissuade Iran from arming itself with nuclear weapons or North Korea from using those it already has.
And who knows whether this interval devoted to lessons in democracy, to exchanges of views, to listening carefully to others’ arguments, and to reflection might not also allow the American president to meditate on the odd “red line” doctrine he formulated a year ago? Who knows whether it might not give him time to interpret that red line in the opposite way, which, alas, may not be its least accurate sense: “Go ahead and kill, Mr. Assad, kill as many people as you want using whatever conventional weapons you choose. Only one weapon is forbidden, the chemical weapon, and we would be obliged if you would eliminate it from your arsenal.” And who knows—we can have a dream, can’t we?—whether it might not provide the occasion for America and her president to take the measure of the hypocrisy of any solution that does not result in the departure, plain and simple, of the dictator?
In short, the hesitation that is everywhere described as a retreat also could be seen as tactical skill.
That is, on one condition.
Care must be taken to ensure that this interval for discussion and reflection ultimately bears fruit rather than turning against the American and French presidents.
Care must be taken to avoid allowing the Syrian regime and its allies to use the delay to scatter their guns and bury their command centers, to intensify their brainwashing efforts and attempt to muddle matters still further.
Care must be taken, because there is one ally of Assad’s who will benefit in the coming days from an unexpected forum in which to plead the cause of the regime.
That ally is Vladimir Putin.
The forum is the G20 ritual to be held September 5 and 6 in St. Petersburg, an event hosted and organized by Putin.
Because Putin has never been a devotee of the disinterested search for truth, it is unlikely that this summit will play its usual role as a forum for free discussion.
What’s worse, because Putin is a little more than an ally of Assad’s in this crisis—having provided the Syrian regime its weapons and, probably, the formulas for its poison gas—there will be, amid the pomp of the event, in the spectacle of the former KGB man strutting across the stage, and in the show of force that he will inflict on his guests, a large dollop of obscenity that the Syrian survivors of the massacres should by rights be spared.
Secondarily, and in anticipation of the strikes that we are assured will occur very soon after September 9—that is, just a few days after the festivities—won’t Obama and Hollande find it a bit awkward to sit down to dinner, as if nothing at all were amiss, with this de facto belligerent who, at that very moment, will have just finished delivering to the regime the missiles that, when the attack comes, will be aimed at the allies’ combat helicopters and aircraft?
For all the foregoing reasons, it would be advisable for Obama to take to its logical conclusion the exercise in sagacity that he has imposed on himself. Go to St. Petersburg, yes, but dispense with the agenda for the meeting; place the Syrian question at the heart of an event that otherwise will have an intolerable odor of gas; and demand the frank tête-à-tête that the boss of the Kremlin made clear he didn’t want, but without which the entire meeting will assume an air of comedy and farce. And if Putin resists, if he confirms that he sees the meeting as nothing more than an occasion to show off, to parade around, and perhaps even to profit from his position as the inviting power to inveigle those of our partners who remain undecided, once again to humiliate (in a word) an international community that he despises, perhaps it would indeed be logical to take the risk of postponing the event or sending representatives.
The Syrian people have been asked to wait another week for justice to be done. Under the circumstances, the G20 could also be asked to wait.
—Translated by Steven B. Kennedy