Monday, September 16, 2013

Syrian Glass Half-full?

President Obama deserves credit for speaking forcefully and compassionately about the plight of innocent victims of chemical weapons in his remarks on television last week. He highlighted awareness of and gave urgency to a terrible situation, as only the leader of the Free World can.

And his administration deserves credit for the agreement it reached with Russia to have Syria relinquish its chemical weapons.

So, this is a good thing, right? The short answer to that question is, yes, it is a good thing. So why are so many reacting like it is a bad thing or a potentially bad thing?

A lot of that has to do with how things got to this point. Nobody seems very impressed with the administration’s handling of the Syrian situation—from drawing a red line to threatening military action to requesting congressional authorization to requesting congressional inaction. Fortune’s Nina Easton put it nicely on one of those TV pundit panels when she said that, when it comes to conducting foreign policy, President Obama seems to do his thinking out loud. An even more amusing quote came from Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz. When asked by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer about former President Jimmy Carter’s opposition to Obama’s then-plan to attack Syria, she responded, “I think President Carter speaks from experience about diminished stature in an international crisis.”

But in the end, what does it matter how slick the process looked or who comes out of it up or down politically as long as the result is good? Right?

The answer depends on how you’re looking at things. Everybody is coming at this from different perspectives, and that colors whether they see the glass half empty, half full or less than half full. Here is my own personal shorthand for dividing up the various reactions. Note that I am dealing here only with people motivated by sincere beliefs, not pure partisans who take a position solely because it helps or hurts President Obama.

These are the people who are happy with the way things have worked out for Syria in the past couple of weeks:

  • Realpolitickers: This is my term for those who subscribe to Realpolitik, the German word that came into vogue during the Cold War. Its guiding tenets are realism and pragmatism. Realpolitickers prize stability over everything else. A dictator who keeps the peace is always preferable to a messy rebellion with hard-to-foresee consequences. These were the people who were horrified when Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and thought he was silly for calling on Mr. Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. The current US/Russia agreement validates Bashar al-Assad and negates Obama’s earlier call for regime change and that means some sort of stability—or at least as much as you can have in the middle of a civil war.

  • Ideological Relativists: This is my own term for those who don’t see any particular virtue in one political system over another and who feel that the West has no right to impose its values on other cultures. There is actually a lot of overlap between these people and the Realpolitickers—maybe so much that they could even be considered virtually a single group.

  • Putin, Assad and Iran: Putin is happy because he has come off as a real player globally and he has gotten the U.S. to validate the legitimacy of his client, arms customer and host for his only Mediterranean military base. Heck, he might even win his own Nobel Peace Prize. Assad is happy because this means no support from the U.S. for the people trying to overthrow him. Iran is happy because Assad is one of the Persians’ few friends among Arab nations and this provides a template for avoiding U.S. military action against Iran.

    These are the people who would be unhappy about recent developments over Syria:

  • Idealists: This is my catch-all term for neoconservatives and Wilsonians (if there are any left in the Democratic Party) who have insisted for two and a half years that the rebels in Syria—or at least a significant portion of them—are amenable to friendly relations with the West and could provide more freedom for the Syrian people if they came to power. To believe this, of course, requires a leap of faith that hope can triumph over experience. The fact is, barring an astounding turn of events, we will probably never know in our lifetimes whether Syria could have successfully had a more liberal form of government.

  • Geo-strategists: These are the people who see the world as one big chess board. They are always looking two or three moves ahead and weighing whose national interests and enhanced or diminished by every event. Geo-strategists in the West would be unhappy generally for the same reasons that Putin is happy. They see an American foreign policy that has seen one pro-America dictator (Egypt’s Mubarak) tossed to the wolves while a pro-Russia dictator (Assad) has been cemented in place. They see the U.S.’s influence in the Middle East diminished and Russia’s enhanced. And they see America’s hand with Iran weakened.

  • Cynics: These are people who have long memories and who do not get very excited about any so-called diplomatic breakthrough. They look at the agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons and remember the various agreements over the years that dealt with Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons and the cat-and-mouse games that plagued the Clinton Administration so much that Clinton made regime change the official U.S. policy for Iraq. They remember the various agreements over North Korea’s nuclear development and how those always turned into the U.S. giving food or other aid to Pyongyang only to have the North Koreans commit further provocations—and then provide nuclear technology to Syria (which the Israelis then blew up). Cynics note with a jaundiced eye that the guarantor of Syria’s divestiture of chemical weapons is the same country that is its main arms supplier. They further note that there is no enforcement mechanism in the agreement other than the U.N. Security Council, where Russia has a veto.

  • The Syrian rebels: These are the big losers. A couple of years ago, it was a given that they would topple Assad, just like the other dictators who fell victim to the Arab Spring. Now nobody gives them a chance. Over the weekend Assad was back to relentlessly bombarding the Damascus suburbs—with absolutely no comment or rebuke from the West. That was because he was using conventional—not chemical—weapons.
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