Monday, September 9, 2013

Syria, Chemical Weapons & US Intervention: Obama Lucky or Astute in Manoevring Putin and Assad?

The scenario I painted yesterday of a radicalized Middle East spilling over into Russia instead of the US isn’t such a stretch after all. Not according to Henry Kissinger, who spoke with Christiane Amanpour onCNN about Syria, Assad’s use of weapons of mass destruction, US policy and relations with Russia past and present.

When Amanpour asked Kissinger if he supported a limited military strike he said that he didn’t initially but he had changed his mind when Assad used the sarin gas. Like Obama he doesn’t believe the US should interfere in civil wars or be the world’s policeman, although he did say the US should be the world’s last resort. But the use of weapons of mass destruction is something entirely different, because it’s a global issue and one that can’t be ignored. It is very dangerous, he said, to legitimize them, which is what the world, with the exception of Obama and Hollande of France – and, to do him justice, David Cameron – is doing right now.

Kissinger supported Obama’s statement that Assad’s actions don’t pose an imminent threat to the US but they do pose a long-term one. Of course they do, they put the power to use weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a megalomaniac. And they set a precedent.

Kissinger mentioned the more imminent threat, which was to Russia. It would explain why Putin, who has backed Assad assiduously up to this point and flexed his muscles against the US, pounced on US Secretary of State John Kerry’s apparent throw-away comment that there would be no need for a military strike if Assad would agree to an international team policing the destruction of his considerable arsenal of sarin and mustard gas. Kerry apparently didn’t for a minute believe it could happen. Or that’s what was reported.

Vladimir Putin is a bully but not an entirely stupid one. He’s been able to support Assad and get away with it so far without too much damage to Russia’s foreign relations. But he really doesn’t want the military strike. I believe it isn’t because he cares about Assad and his supporters, but because he sees the danger of being a patent sworn enemy of what will be an even more empowered radicalized Middle East once the US intervenes.

Maybe Obama saw that a mile away, and maybe Kerry’s comment was more planned than is generally believed. Maybe in fact it was very carefully planted. 

Barack Obama isn’t a war President. He doesn’t like it, doesn’t believe in it, doesn’t want it. In fact he wants the world to stop fighting with guns and do it with words. He has always recognized that America’s foundation – the middle class – was disintegrating. His policies have been driven by a profound humanitarianism but they have also created the only option for the US holding onto its international power.  Obama saw what the Romans didn’t see. They kept their eye on foreign power and disintegrated at the core. So he has averted the fall of the US Empire that has been predicted for years – by many with relish.

He’s been very reluctant to step in with US military might when other presidents would have gone in guns blazing. But, like Kissinger, he recognized the danger of letting sarin gas be used with impunity, and that the issue at stake is a global one, and not a Syrian civil war one. 

And perhaps he’s cleverer at reading people and at foreign relations than anybody gives him credit for. He’s been accused of painting himself into a corner by first insisting on a limited military strike and then backing down and handing the power over to Congress. (Rarely reported is that he actually said he would consult Congress but not necessarily be guided by them.) It’s been said that he’s just lucky Kerry made that innocuous comment. Lucky? I doubt it. Exceptionally astute is more like it.
If Barack Obama can succeed in manoeuvring Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad towards a safer world without firing a single weapon he deserves the Nobel Peace Prize.

They are both megalomaniacal, stubborn bullies and neither has an ounce of ethic. Which Obama has not lost sight of. Not to be forgotten is that he has said unequivocally he has reservations that either of these two men would keep their word, sending a clear message to Putin and Assad that they are not off the hook.