Saturday, September 14, 2013

Back to Bipolar: Syria Dominated by American, Russian Positions

The frenzy of diplomatic and media activity around the August 21 chemical weapons attack in Syria has produced two, and only two, approaches. The Russians have opposed the idea of airstrikes, which until this week was President Obama's frontrunning policy option. Global opinion has largely opposed it, while John Kerry's off-the-cuff remark about orchestrating a chemical weapons seizure has now become the U.S. administration's official goal in the matter. 

Prior to this week's about-face from the State Department and the White House, EurAmerican was intrigued to see just how bipolar the world seemed on the Syrian dossier. Observers from California to Caracas were forced to make a choice between the two positions set by the U.S. and Russia. The American position, initially for what Sec. Kerry dubbed an "unbelievably small" aerial intervention, brought to mind the mistakes of the Iraq War. President Obama tried, with little success, to assuage the fears of the American public and anti-airstrike partisans worldwide. President Vladimir Putin led an obstructionist charge from the UN Security Council, providing an alternative an cynical option to let the bloodshed in Syria continue. 

What were the world's other options? Were there other options, floated by the European Union, China, the BRICS? If there were any, they didn't penetrate the international media space, and they haven't stuck to the wall since.

The  world may be less bipolar than during the Cold War, but judging by the last several weeks, few other powers edged in to provide a third way through the diplomatic gridlock. Action is needed urgently. What hangs in the balance is a swelling refugee crisis in every one of Syria's neighbor countries, as well as the credibility of national administrations in the U.S., Europe, and international organizations like the UN. And that doesn't mention the justice owed to the 110,000 Syrians killed so far.


The Wall Street Journal published this morning a menu of opinions from thought leaders on the Syria crisis. The one bearing the sharpest tone came from Josef Joffe, a Europe specialist at the Hoover Institution. He makes the case for continuing a vigorous exercise of American power abroad, especially as it concerns the comparative reticence of the next-most powerful Western forces to curb bloodshed in places like Syria. Mr. Joffe makes historical and modern connections to Europe that bear repeating: 

"In Europe, Clausewitz is either dying (Britain and France) or dead (Germany and the rest). Recall the famous counsel of the Prussian general: "War is the continuation of policy with other means"—that is, with force.
"Germany, the loser of two world wars, cut this seamless web in 1945, followed by all those former warrior nations from Spain to Sweden. Force as tool of statecraft? Heaven forfend! Europe shall be an "empire of peace." Britain and France, ex-imperial powers both, are going down the same road. David Cameron was trashed by Parliament when he asked for a war resolution on Syria. France's François Hollande would suffer the same fate if he went to the National Assembly.
"In his heart, Mr. Obama also would like to ditch Clausewitz, as he signaled in his Tuesday speech. He would like to turn the U.S. into an XXL medium-power. He wants to unshoulder the burden of global leadership and to drag the U.S. out of harm's way. As in Europe, his priority is welfare rather than warfare—"nation-building at home." If it has to be force, it must be on the cheap—"limited" and "narrow." Mr. Obama is probably as grateful as Mr. Assad for the reprieve cooked up by the Russians, who want to save the despot at all cost. Ms. Merkel and Messrs. Cameron and Hollande are delighted as well. There is now no shame in hanging back.
"There is just one problem, and it is bigger than to strike or not. Or to extract well-hidden chemical weapons from a war zone the size of Oklahoma. The U.S. is not an XXL medium-power but the housekeeper of the world. If it outsources the job, there is nobody else—not Europe, Russia or China. And the vandals are watching."

EurAmerican agrees.