I have to say I found myself shifting a little – not a lot, but a little – after reading the transcript of the president’s press conference at the end of the G20 Summit. Do yourself a favor and read it. It will disappoint those who still believe the man cannot speak without a Teleprompter, but it’s a deep, nuanced, sober and earnest case for a limited military strike to make sure the world does not simply look away when hundreds of children are gassed by a dictator. That seems to me to be Obama’s strongest point:
My goal is to maintain the international norm on banning chemical weapons. I want that enforcement to be real. I want it to be serious. I want people to understand that gassing innocent people, delivering chemical weapons against children is not something we do. It’s prohibited in active wars between countries. We certainly don’t do it against kids. And we’ve got to stand up for that principle.
Yes, we’ve got to. And none of us are happy with this kind of atrocity being allowed to stand. But the point is: even with Obama’s proposed strike, it would still stand. If the war is restricted to a few strikes as a symbolic act, it may degrade Assad’s ability to use those weapons in the future. But he’d still have them; and he could still use them. Using them after an attack would prove the intervention essentially toothless, and even give Assad the anti-American victim card to play. Obama addresses the point explicitly here:
Is it possible that Assad doubles down in the face of our action and uses chemical weapons more widely? I suppose anything is possible, but it wouldn’t be wise. I think at that point, mobilizing the international community would be easier, not harder. I think it would be pretty hard for the U.N. Security Council at that point to continue to resist the requirement for action, and we would gladly join with an international coalition to make sure that it stops.
There‘s the weak link in the logic. He seems to think it would be crazy for Assad to continue using those weapons. But Assad is a crazy motherfucker with everything to lose. Of course, he could try again as an act of defiance. But he may be less predisposed to do that if we don’t launch a war, but fence him in. And if Obama wants to take a stand against Assad’s breaking of a long-held international norm with respect to using chemical weapons, then he has already. He came close at one point to bragging of it:
Frankly, if we weren’t talking about the need for an international response right now, this wouldn’t be what everybody would be asking about. There would be some resolutions that were being proffered in the United Nations and the usual hocus-pocus, but the world and the country would have moved on. So trying to impart a sense of urgency about this — why we can’t have an environment in which over time people start thinking we can get away with chemical weapons use — it’s a hard sell, but it’s something I believe in.
And by using the G-20 Summit to insist that this breach of core human morality and decency not be ignored, Obama has already done a lot of what a military strike would do to protect this norm, without any of the bad consequences of intervening in the Syrian civil war. The world is intently watching – and Putin and Iran would be increasingly embarrassed if their client were to use these weapons again.
Another major incident and Russia would be using up a lot of capital to protect the murderous Alawite. Ditto Iran, whose more moderate elements are clearly sending a message that here is perhaps some smidgen of a basis to talk to the Americans again.
The good news is that there was unanimity at the G20 that chemical weapons were indeed used; the forthcoming UN Report will doubtless underline the core facts; and there is also a clear consensus that the use of chemical weapons is anathema. This entire debate has helped buttress these international norms even as Assad has breached them.
Why is that not enough for now? Why does reinforcing this breach of norms have to be executed militarily? Why cannot we have some kind of probation period for Assad, as the world watches more closely? If Assad were to use those weapons again, in Obama’s own words, that would make “mobilizing the international community … easier, not harder.” But it would be harder if America had muddied the waters by previously entering the civil war while there was no international consensus.
In other words, there is a sweet spot here that we could yet reach – a reinforcement of the norm, a gathering of evidence at the UN, a probation period for Assad, and the US guiding the rest of the world to keep on life-support this norm against using chemical weapons. Military action would be deferred and predicated on a clear violation in the future by Assad or, indeed, his opponents, if they get their hands on the stuff. The achievement of threatening to strike was getting the entire international community to wake up and pay attention.
Patience, in other words, is not the same as doing nothing. Sometimes, it is the only way to do something in a way that actually works.
(Photo: US President Barack Obama gestures during a press conference in Saint Petersburg on September 6, 2013 on the sideline of the G20 summit. By Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty.)