Saturday, September 14, 2013

Solving Syria With Trial And Error

The news that hit the homepage of the New York Times this morning was the that the United States and Russia have agreed on a deal regarding Syria's chemical weapons. The article states in the fifth graph the unprecedented nature of this plan:
Security will be a major worry for the inspectors who are tasked with implementing the agreement; no precedent exists for inspection, removal and destruction of a large chemical weapons stockpile during a raging civil war.
But the challenge of policing an active war zone and extracting dangerous chemical weapons has not yet worried American editorial observers nearly so much as the status of American diplomatic strength in a multilateral world. Perhaps the most anxious of the hand-wringers is Times columnist Roger Cohen. About ten days ago, after Obama had decided to put this question of intervention to Congress, he wrote how "'red lines'... have been a foundation of the post-1945 world order." Then earlier this week Cohen wrote this of the administration's haphazard diplomacy:
The sight of a president who draws a red line on chemical attack and then says “I didn’t set a red line” (the world did); who has Kerry plead a powerful case for military action only to stall; who defers to Congress but seems happy enough with Congress ambling back into session more than a week later; who notes that for “nearly seven decades the United States has been the anchor of global security,” and then declares “America is not the world’s policeman” — the sight of all this has marked a moment when America signaled an inward turn that leaves the world anchorless.
I have not been especially impressed with Obama and Kerry in the past few weeks, though my disappointment has less to do with their decision making than the appearance of their decision making. The United States has appeared at many moments to be rudderless and it is the job of the executive branch to present a more resolute face to the world. That said, a lot of people confuse the quality of being "resolute" or "strong" with an inflexible course of action, which is a far more irresponsible line to take. Having a firm hand on the rudder does not mean a ship never turns; shifting direction is in fact the purpose of the rudder.

To return to Cohen's point, this new awareness that the world is now a chaotic and dangerous place because it is no longer "anchored" by American values and American power strikes me as a tilted way of understanding history after 1945. There were plenty of moments when America exerted its might and reversed destabilizing developments—Cohen mentions the Cuban Missile Crisis, for instance. On the other hand, there were plenty of times when crises went unaddressed, ignored, or exacerbated by the United States. Was it an "anchorless" world when the US refused to intervene in the genocide in Rwanda? Did Latin America become more or less chaotic when Reagan chose to illegally fund the Contras and their terrorist insurgency against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua? What good did any previous "red lines" do to deter Iran from seizing hostages in 1979?

Cohen is implying that we are in some new Wild West era of global politics compared with civilized foreign order of the Cold War. I'm unconvinced and much more inclined to side with Timothy Egan, whose recent column has called out all those pundits who want foreign policy to operate like a chess match with the United States playing fifteen moves ahead. Egan argues that to cherish constitutional democracies is to become reconciled to messy and unpredictable policy making. That doesn't have to be a bad thing, even if it seems unsettling. Eventually good ideas find their time and get adopted, a better outcome than when a nation clings stubbornly to a bad idea, just because it was the first idea. Egan writes of Syria:
The net result, accidental or not, is that Syria is no longer just an American problem. They say they will give up the poison gas that, wink, wink, was never used. The principle, as Obama said, “that with modest effort and risk we stop children from being gassed to death,” is there on the table for a world that preferred to look the other way. And, added bonus: the neocon warriors are gone, homeless in both parties. All of this is a hugely positive leap from where we were a week, a month, or a year ago.
It is also, as Emily Bazelon for Slate argues, a victory for international law. That, of course, is exactly what is driving the Republican into apoplexy. They are split between those who want to demonstrate American power by forcefully intervening, and those who want to demonstrate American power by forcefully not intervening. The former group, the neocons, are running into the problem of the legacy of Iraq. The latter group, Tea Party neanderthals, is running into the problem of logic.

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