by Chas Freeman
An acquaintance who, like me, used to work on foreign affairs in the U.S. government, told me the other day that he thought that, in going after Bashar al-Assad, President Barak Obama had decided on an approach more akin to Bush 41 (carefully building a consensus) than Bush 43 (you are either with us or against us). He added that, to make a success of bombing Syria as Bush 41 made of bombing Iraq in the first Gulf War, the president didn’t just need the support of the Congress and the public but also of NATO, the Arab League, and a coalition of the willing. But the obstacles Obama faces are much greater than those George H. W. Bush did and I don’t think the analogy to the first Gulf War really holds.
The circumstances today are totally different than in 1990, when strong impulses to rally behind the United States borne of the Cold War continued to animate allied decisions. There is no longer a common external threat to draw other countries into formation behind us. Two decades of perceived American indifference to allied and friendly views on a wide range of issues have taken their toll, especially in the Middle East and Europe. The Syrian issue, although greatly complicated by foreign players within the region and beyond it, has no global context of Manichean struggle to channel reactions to it.
In 1990-1991, as the USSR collapsed, the Russians ceased to be a significant factor in the Middle East, erasing the bipolar order of the past and freeing Saddam wrongly to assume that he could act on his own and with impunity against Kuwait. In 2013, the region is driven by regional rather than global dynamics but, thanks to events in Egypt and Saudi disillusionment with the U.S. policies of the past thirteen years, Russia is on the make and poised for a comeback as a strategic player in the Middle East.
In 1990, the world’s Muslims were solidly anti-communist and mostly well-disposed to the United States. Anti-communism is now an irrelevancy. The fallout from 9/11, the failed American pacification campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and U.S. identification with Israel’s attacks on Lebanon and Gaza have replaced Muslim goodwill with animosity. The appeal of American values has been tarnished by numerous abuses, and the worldwide credibility of U.S. intelligence is low. The British defection from the enterprise leaves our pretensions to speak and act for the “international community” in tatters. (The poodle has left the American lap and walked off the job. The French are halfheartedly applying for the position. They aren’t house-trained and will want too much to get it.)
Major actors in the international community, such as it is, value the institutions that embody it, the U.N., the U.N. Charter, and international law, to none of which the U.S. has deferred, except highly selectively, since our Kosovo intervention with NATO in October 1998. Fifteen years of selective adherence to treaties and laws greatly detract from the credibility of our claim now to be acting to enforce the Geneva Convention of 1929 in Syria, especially when the “international community” as well as the Arab League and our own allies have declined to authorize us to do so. Abroad, we are not seen as righteous vigilantes on behalf of humanitarian principles but as proponents of the theses that military might confers right, that military actions trump diplomacy (which is mostly just for show), and that political solutions are for wimps. There will be no international rally behind an essentially unilateral U.S. attack on Syria. On the contrary, if we carry out such an attack, it will further diminish our international standing and leadership. Illegal actions to enforce legality are the very definition of cynicism.
When Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990, it was a clear and abrupt challenge to the rule of law in the post-Cold War era, not to mention an obvious threat by a single, very selfish state to monopolize the world’s major sources of energy. From the outset, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia sought and received U.N. authorization to “form a posse” to deal with these challenges. The atrocities in Syria are the product of a civil war, not of a violation of any other country’s sovereignty. The situation in Syria is also an unfolding humanitarian catastrophe that has been allowed to fester for over two years, with respect to which the U.N. has been marginalized and is now ignored by us and some other players. Whatever happens, it is highly unlikely that we will accede to the desire of other great powers that we defer to the U.N. and hence to their interest in international norms of behavior. For this reason, President Obama is likely to take a drubbing from allies, friends, and adversaries alike at the upcoming G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg, where he must make the case for what he has unilaterally decided but Congress has yet to approve.
To my mind, the most interesting and significant aspect of what has just happened — the issuance of an order to attack, followed by its sudden suspension until Congress can review it — is the domestic rediscovery of the fact that wars cannot be successfully mounted or sustained without a measure of domestic political backing. (In tactical terms, this is an attempt to share the political blame and pin the charge of vacillation and weakness on the Republican House.) There is a chance that, in the course of debating the order to attack Syria, someone will actually read our Constitution (Article I, Section 8, Clause 11) on how wars are to be legally authorized. I note that, in his statement Saturday, the president claimed inherent authority to make war. I hope that this concept, like the divine right of kings in its pedigree, is appropriately challenged in the debate. Unfortunately, the divine right of legislatures, an equal problem in the breakdown of the separation of powers and hence the operation of our system of government, will not be challenged.
Getting our country, our government, and the president’s authority in foreign affairs into the multiple conundrums in which they now find themselves was the work of many administrations and Congresses, not just poor Mr. Obama (as the venerable Israeli peace activist, Uri Avnery aptly termed him in a recent column). I don’t think anyone could envy the position our president is now in domestically or internationally. He was dealt a bad hand. He has not played the game in such a way to pick up better cards since. Now his bluff has been called.
— Chas Freeman served as U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the war to liberate Kuwait and as Assistant Secretary of Defense from 1993-1994. Since 1995, he has chaired Projects International, Inc., a Washington-based firm that creates businesses across borders for its American and foreign clients. He was the editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on “diplomacy” and is the author of five books, including “America’s Misadventures in the Middle East” and “Interesting Times: China, America, and the Shifting Balance of Prestige.”