Playing Russian Roulette with Syria

The strategy outlined in President Obama’s speech Tuesday night was 180 degrees from where it stood when it was announced he would address the nation, so much so that it’s worth asking why he went ahead and went on prime time.

As I wrote last week in the Prospect, going to Congress was a way for Obama to build domestic support that could in turn generate greater international support for military action. With the Syria resolution all but dead, and the Russians and Syrians saying yes to John Kerry’s maybe-serious-maybe-not plan to remove Syria’s chemical weapons under Russian auspices, it now looks like the course of action has been reversed. Last night the president announced that he had asked leaders of Congress to postpone the vote while his administration worked to build international support around the proposed plan, the admittedly complicated details of which are still being worked out. If that process fails, or simply proves, as many reasonably suspect, to be a Russian stalling tactic, the president could then return to Congress, un-press the pause button, and use the fact that he pursued every possible diplomatic option available in order to generate the votes.     

Could he get those votes? Maybe. But after a week long full-court press by the administration in the media, public support for intervention is shrinking rather than growing. Having been repeatedly told over the past days, that Syria isn’t Iraq and it isn’t Afghanistan, Americans get that Syria isn’t Iraq and they get that it isn’t Afghanistan. And they’re still not into it. The Russian embrace of Kerry’s proposal provided a welcome—if momentary—out. And it’s not as if there’s any danger of support for the measure losing momentum.

As speeches go, it was a good one. The president made as effective a case for this intervention as one can make. And, in my view, it still wasn’t all that convincing. Is the international norm against chemical weapons important? Of course, no one I’m aware of argues otherwise. Is that norm dependent on a few days of U.S. airstrikes for its continued existence? I’m not convinced that it is. I believe that the United States has a major role to play in upholding an international rules-based order, but I think the president failed to meaningfully tie what is happening in Syria to American national security, despite the questionable assertion of an “emboldened” Iran, and despite the new rhetorical tactic of talking up the children killed by chemical weapons. In short, nothing to convince anyone who wasn’t convinced of all these things in the first place.

As this process has played out over the last several weeks, I’ve been troubled by the relatively short shrift given by the president and other advocates of intervention to the idea of the international legitimacy of a U.S. strike on Syria. This speech was not an exception. There was no reference to the United Nations, and international law was mentioned only in the context of the U.S. as its enforcer. In this regard, I think it’s worth remembering a past argument made by a top member of Obama’s national security team. Criticizing the Iraq war during the 2004 presidential campaign, then-Senator Kerry memorably suggested that, for an American military intervention to be effective, it needed to pass a “global test” of legitimacy. When taking military action, Kerry said during the first presidential debate with President Bush, “You've got to do it in a way that passes the test—that passes the global test where your countrymen, your people, understand fully why you're doing what you're doing, and you can prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons.”

Conservatives immediately pounced on Kerry remarks, but, of course, Kerry was correct. America is stronger and more effective when its policies are viewed as legitimate, and far more likely to attract support when seen as acting within an international consensus. In a 2004 critique of the Bush administration’s foreign policy, writer and Talking Points Memo founder Josh Marshall articulated what I still think is the best concise description of progressive foreign policy. “Legitimacy is the ultimate ‘force multiplier,’ in military argot,” wrote Marshall. “And if your aim is to maintain a global order, as opposed to rousting this or that pariah regime, you need all the force multipliers you can get.”

This approach has underpinned much of the Obama administration’s foreign policy over the last five years, as the United States has revitalized participation with the United Nations after the relative disengagement of the Bush years, in an effort to strengthen and improve the instruments of multilateral cooperation. The approach to Syria has undermined that effort, and in confoundingly gratuitous ways, such as the president’s reference to UN resolutions on Syria as “the usual hocus pocus” in remarks at the G20 last Friday. Engaging in that “hocus pocus,” as the president announced he is now preparing to do, is an important way to make sure that the United States isn’t bearing all the burden for upholding international norms—or all the blame if and when those efforts go sideways. 

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