Commentary Magazine


Can Diplomacy Be a Prelude to Force?

The spin being put forward by President Obama’s apologists in the wake of his extraordinary retreat from his position calling for a strike on Syria is that his strength made diplomacy possible. That this is patently false is not a secret. The president displayed weakness by not going ahead and ordering an attack on his own authority against the Assad regime following its use of chemical weapons to murder a thousand people last month. That weakness was compounded by the president’s failure to rally support for a congressional resolution authorizing force. His embrace of a Russian plan to take possession of Syria’s horde of illegal weapons was forced upon him by the knowledge that the odds were heavily against gaining passage for such a resolution. But that didn’t stop the president and his supporters from claiming that the Russian gambit was the result of his tough talk.

But even if we ignore that absurd assertion, the president also said that he has asked the U.S. military to “maintain their current posture to keep the press on Assad, and to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails.” That also sounds tough. But is it credible? For those who think that diplomacy could possibly be a prelude to the use of force against Syria, there are two main obstacles: the president’s incapacity to convince Americans to back such a plan and his almost religious belief in diplomacy that will prevent him from facing the truth about the Russian ruse.

The assumption is that though the president felt unable to order an attack on Syria prior to now, a collapse of the Russian initiative would enable him to convince a reluctant Congress and an American public that overwhelmingly opposed his plans to change their minds. However, the odds of that happening are virtually nonexistent. Though the president belatedly made a strong case for action in the opening section of his speech last night, what followed was an acknowledgement that most Americans, rightly or wrongly, wanted no part of an intervention in Syria. Nothing that happens in the coming days or weeks can change that because the problem was not that Americans had to be convinced that Assad’s regime was a criminal enterprise. Rather it is because they have been led to believe—by no less a figure than President Obama himself—that the use of force to intervene abroad to punish or topple tyrants was a neoconservative heresy that should never again be attempted.

The upsurge in isolationism is not so much, as some have asserted, a reaction to Obama’s policies, but the product of them as he abandoned the struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan.

More specifically, now that the momentum toward Western intervention in Syria has been halted by the president’s turnabout, it is almost impossible to imagine that anything Russia or Syria will do can reignite the president’s already faltering impetus toward action. The longer the delay in responding to the Syrian atrocities that the president described so graphically last night, the less compelling any call to respond or punish Assad will be. Since the president’s obvious ambivalence and distaste for being a war leader has largely vindicated the cynicism of his critics on both the left and the right, there is no going back to the moment when an attack on Syria would be possible.

Secondly, the lure of diplomacy for Obama and his team is such that there is no possible scenario that would be interpreted by them as a casus belli for an attack.

This is an administration that is in love with the United Nations and the notion of multilateralism. Though the prospect of genuine cooperation on chemical weapons from Assad is a fantasy, the White House and the State Department are so besotted with the lifeline that Russian President Putin has offered them that nothing short of a complete repudiation of the scheme by Syria and its enablers would be enough to spike it. No matter how transparent the fraud, President Obama will stick with it as long as he possibly can. This would repeat a pattern that has been clear throughout the last five years as the administration continues to fall for Iranian diplomatic overtures and to pretend that the Palestinians are actually interested in peace with Israel.

If there was a chance for the United States to act to curb Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons or to prevent more slaughter in Syria, the moment has passed and will not recur. Though their positions are wrongheaded, don’t blame this on the isolationists in Congress or even on Syria’s allies in Russia and Iran who have every right to be crowing today. The fault lies entirely with an indecisive president who seems to have an allergy to leadership. Remember that as the body count continues to rise in Syria and Iran gets closer to nuclear capability. 

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