Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The President's Speech

It's been a weird run-up to whatever - ever since the President decided action (some action but not too much action) needed to be taken to punish Syria's use of chemical weapons and so deter Syria and others from future such uses. Such weapons have, of course, been "illegal" since 1925. They have, however, been used more than once since then - most notably by Saddam Hussein both against his own people and against Iran during that terrible war between Iraq and Iran in the 1980s. While we did eventually remove Saddam Hussein from power, that came later and was not a punishment for his having violated the international norm condemning such weapons. The Assad regime's use of such weapons is consistent with the character of that terrible regime. The question the President has been so publicly and visibly wrestling with was what, if anything, should be done about it. And then how to persuade a reluctant American public to follow his lead.
Of course, a good case can be made for some sort of intervention. It is, as the President has said (if expressed with politically dubious outrage), in our general national interest to deter further use of such weapons. Our interests are, however, many and complex. Our interests are particular as well as general. Whether we ought actually to do so in this particular case has always been the complicating question. We didn't act when Saddam Hussein violated the chemical weapons norm not that long ago. (Does anyone seriously think we would use force if, for example, China used such weapons on, say, the people of Tibet?) So the real question is the one that is always at issue when it comes to making war. What would be the most prudential judgment to make, given all the dimensions of this conflict, given the uncertain outcomes? And given in this case the inconvenient fact that the American public remains reluctant?
Enter Russian President Putin, who somewhat unexpectedly has found it to be in his interest to play peacemaker. Putin's intervention warrants skepticism, to be sure, but our enemies' behaviors always warrant skepticism.  Like military action, diplomacy is inherently uncertain. Collaborating with Putin and involving the generally useless UN, these are as fraught with uncertainty and danger as any military action. But may be marginally more prudent.
If the President's threat to use force pushed Putin to act a bit more responsibly, so much the better. If Putin's intervention has given the U.S. a way to back down from enforcing our self-imposed "red line" without a complete loss of credibility, so much the better. And it might manage to keep the lid on the perennial powder-keg that is the Middle East. This could be, as they say, a win-win.
A win-win for everyone except the Syrians, whose suffering will undoubtedly continue.
But the Syrians' suffering would likely continue regardless of U.S. action.
So would the President's muddled, somewhat amateurish approach to projecting American power to safeguard American interests. So would Congress's reluctance to take real responsibility.
All things considered, maybe it's just as well we tone down our outrage and continue to muddle.

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