Commentary Magazine


Diplomatic Progress–Real or Imagined?

If good intentions and soaring rhetoric were enough to translate into diplomatic achievements, the Obama administration would have wracked up more achievements in the past week than any preceding presidency since Woodrow Wilson attended the Versailles conference.

First Syria agrees to give up its chemical weapons. Now Obama chats with Hassan Rouhani in the first direct conversation between an American and Iranian leader since the 1970s. Add in a domestic achievement of sorts–goading House Republicans into an ill-advised showdown over Obama’s health-care plan that could result in a government shutdown that the president will try to wrap around the Republicans’ elephant ears–and it’s easy to see why White House aides are jubilant. Only a few weeks ago the president was being written off as a lame duck; now he has suddenly been transformed into a candidate for another Nobel Peace Prize.

Alas, it remains far from clear that the diplomatic breakthroughs of recent days will result in concrete changes on the ground. Rouhani certainly charmed politicians and pundits on his recent New York visit (I was among many who saw him speak) but he also refused to admit that Iran is trying to acquire a nuclear weapon or to offer a halt in enrichment, which is drawing Tehran closer to its long-cherished goal. The phone call with Obama was nice, but there has been no sign of Iranian concessions yet, notwithstanding Rouhani’s promises to conclude a peace deal within months.

Over at the Weekly Standard, Reuel Gerecht makes a compelling case for skepticism about Rouhani’s intentions, noting that he has a long record as a regime stalwart and proponent of the nuclear program. As a tactical matter, Rouhani may well be willing to stop short of a nuclear weapon for now in return for a relaxation of sanctions, but it is doubtful he will abandon the revolutionary regime’s desire for the ultimate weapon which the mullahs see as the ultimate guarantor of their Islamic revolution.

Then there is Syria. The UN passed a resolution calling on Assad to give up his chemical weapons. This was hailed as a “milestone after years of inertia,” which it arguably was, but the impact of this milestone was considerably vitiated by the fact that it was a Chapter VI resolution, not a Chapter VII, which means there are no automatic penalties for Syrian noncompliance. Getting authorization to compel compliance would require another UN Security Council vote which Assad’s buddy, Vladimir Putin, would almost certainly block.

Meanwhile the Syrian civil war continues unabated. At Foreign Policy’s website, Oubai Shahbandar of the Syrian Support Group, a pro-rebel organization, points out at that the Putin-brokered deal at the UN has unleashed Assad’s conventional military forces:

The Syrian regime’s Russian-manufactured battle tanks and Sukhoi air-to-ground attack aircraft, once hidden away when Western air strikes seemed imminent, are now once again relentlessly pounding towns and villages in liberated areas. Bombs are yet again being dropped on bakeries in rebel-held regions and residents in Damascus have noted the thunderous bombardments from Assad’s batteries as they target the eastern Ghouta district — the district hit in the horrific chemical attack of August 21.

Mass gassing has now been replaced by a systemic ghetto eradication campaign to close off, isolate, starve, and pummel the inhabitants of rebel neighborhoods.

In the past Obama has spoken of the need for the U.S. government to stop atrocities abroad; he even created an Atrocities Prevention Board for this purpose. But in Syria he has confined his attention to preventing one small set of atrocities–those committed with chemical weapons–while ignoring the far more pervasive atrocities carried out with conventional weaponry which might at least partially been stopped by American air strikes. The White House may be claiming success in its diplomatic offensive, but it is doubtful that many ordinary Syrians see it that way.