For the time being at least, it looks as though Russian diplomacy may have saved Barack Obama from stumbling into the biggest mistake of his presidency. Until Monday night, his administration was locked into a spectacularly inept, amateurish and dishonest diplomatic offensive that appeared to leading inexorably towards a military assault on Syria and a major regional war.
Now the Nobel Prize winner has rediscovered diplomacy, to the relief of many, and none more so than Obama himself. At times the incompetence of the president and his hapless secretary of state during the past fortnight has been quite breathtaking, as they issued a stream of contradictory statements that baffled and wrong-footed even their own allies, and constantly redefined the purported goals of military intervention in ways that made it alarmingly clear that neither of them knew what they wanted to achieve or how to achieve it.
One minute the US was going to strike at Syria before the United Nations weapons inspectors had even carried out an inspection, and before it had even been proven who had carried out the attack in Ghouta. Then Obama abruptly postponed military action so that he could go to Congress, while at the same time he hinted that he might take action even if Congress voted no.
Throughout this process the purported goals and motives of military action shifted so often that it sometimes appeared that Obama and Kerry were plucking cards from a pack of Trivial Pursuits. First military strikes were going to be ‘limited’ in order to ‘punish’ and ‘deter’ Syria from using chemical weapons, then they were going to ‘degrade’ its chemical weapons capacity.
And then Kerry assured the Republican-dominated Senate that strikes ‘would not be pinpricks’ and would seriously damage Syria’s overall military capacity. But on Monday he was pleading almost plaintively to wavering Democrats in Congress that they ought to support military action because strikes were in fact going to be ‘unbelievably small’ - something that must have left many of Obama’s generals open-mouthed.
The motives for all this were similarly nebulous. First military action was a question of conscience intended to ‘protect the Syria people’, then it was about maintaining US ‘credibility’, then it was the credibility of the international community that was being defended, and then Syria was a threat to US national security and then it was a threat to the security of America’s allies.
All this would be more appropriate in a knockabout farce or political satire, were it not for the fact that war is a very serious business and the savage conflict that is ripping Syria to pieces is very serious indeed. The administration’s ineptitude did nothing to overcome international skepticism or the war-weariness of the US public, and on Monday morning it was looking as though Obama and Kerry might be forced to launch a war without Congressional approval, without the Brits, and with only France in tow.
It was at that point that Kerry suggested that Syria might be able to avoid military action if it handed its chemical weapons within a week, and the Russians promptly picked up the ball and ran with it, and astonishingly, got immediate compliance from Syria.
This was a triumph for Russian diplomacy, but the US and its allies have not surprisingly attempted to take the credit and co-opt it for their own purposes. First Obama claimed that he had suggested such a possibility to Putin at the Moscow conference, then David Cameron, still smarting from the parliamentary vote, claimed that in fact he was the one who came up with the idea.
At this point it’s worth reminding ourselves that neither of these great statesmen thought to mention this proposal publicly when they were in Moscow, and that the White House initially denied that Kerry’s ‘within a week’ suggestion was intended as a serious proposal.
Never mind. After all the big lies that have been told so far in this dismal affair, a few little ones are par for the course. The main thing is that the Russian initiative has opened the way for a potential resolution of the chemical weapons issue, and it could also lay the basis for international cooperation aimed at the demilitarision of the Syrian civil war and an eventual political solution.
Of course both these possibilities are quite remote, and it isn’t clear at all that the countries that wanted to use the chemical weapons issue as a pretext for war particularly want either of them. The US and its allies in the Security Council are already trying to reframe the Russian proposal in order to transform it into an automatic trigger for military action.
This process has been driven by France, which back in 2003 rejected the Blair/Bush attempt to do the same thing over Iraq, but now wants to lock Syria into an inspection/compliance process that could be used to justify military strikes under the auspices of the Security Council. This is an old technique of ‘humanitarian’ interventions, in which target regimes are forced to accept ever-more intrusive and unrealistic inspections that few countries would ever agree to, so that they can be whacked when they don’t comply.
The essence of such behavior, to paraphrase Don Corleone, is to make such regimes an offer that they have to refuse. France recognized the trick back in 2003, but now it wants to do the same thing, and our own Lord Snooty has also tried to get in on the act, arguing for a tough resolution in case the Russian/Syrian proposal is a ‘ruse’ – something that could also be said of the Ghouta chemical attack.
These efforts might yet derail the Russian proposal, but for the time being the Bear’s intervention has saved Obama from a monumental reckless folly that would have finally wrecked his presidency and obliged him to go back to diplomacy.
Both Obama and Cameron have had the temerity to suggest that the Russian initiative was the result of their foresight and tenacity. But this is another delusion, because if Cameron had not been voted down in parliament then military strikes would have already taken place.
None of this is much to celebrate, given the magnitude of the disaster in Syria. But for those of us who believe that Western intervention will make only pour petrol on the flames, even the faint prospect of a different kind of diplomacy aimed at bringing disastrous conflict towards a negotiated resolution, is preferable to the recklessness, stupidity and aggression shown by the US and its allies over the last fortnight.