Never has Winston Churchill’s epigram looked so apt as right now: “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing,” the eloquent Briton reportedly said, “after they’ve exhausted all the other possibilities.” Barack Obama at first tried just about every possibility in dealing with Syria but the right one. For many months, he ignored the spreading civil war there, even as it spilled over the borders into Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Obama also failed to respond to the regime’s previous, if smaller, chemical attacks when they were documented in June, despite saying he would act; this failure unquestionably emboldened Bashar al-Assad to escalate his use of chemical weapons until the brazen and deadly attack of last month. And when Obama finally did respond, it was with a neck-wrenching pledge to launch an imminent attack. The turnabout caught everyone off guard, especially vacationing members of Congress whom Obama pledged to bypass—until he abruptly delegated his decision to them.
The president never got his timing right. If Obama wanted Congress to approve military action, he should have waited until members returned from their summer recess, rather than allowing them to get ambushed by an angry and ill-informed public in town meetings while the media chewed up his evidence piecemeal on talk TV over the last two weeks. “That was a miscalculation,” says Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. Mike Rogers, the committee chairman, also pointed out, “You can’t really go from a dead stop to full speed. We created our own problem here.”
But now Obama has won a reprieve—thanks to the Russians, of all people, America’s chief antagonists—from what looked like an all-but-certain congressional defeat. In the coming days, the president thus has a chance to avoid what could have been the worst humiliation of his presidency. Indeed, he could even achieve two major victories at once. If Syria, under Russia’s disarmament plan, goes beyond its already startling admission that it possesses chemical weapons (coming only days after Assad’s denials, this is already a victory) and gives its stockpiles up to international inspectors for elimination, it will prove a huge American diplomatic triumph in a region where there haven’t been any U.S. breakthroughs for a very long time.
More than that, though, Obama will also have affirmed a truth that has fallen into doubt in recent years, most of all among Americans themselves: the centrality of the United States in upholding the international order. If Obama’s Syria strategy was marred by uncertainty (in keeping with the war-weary neo-isolationism that now afflicts America), the line he now draws is quite clear. It could even set a foreign policy precedent for future presidents. In his 17-minute speech to the nation Tuesday night, Obama made plain that his policy is at least as much about Iran’s nuclear program—and potential WMD in every other rogue state—as it is about Syria. America doesn’t generally intervene militarily anymore to topple dictators, or even to stop humanitarian disasters. But it will uphold certain “norms” that keep the international system from falling into its natural and historical state—anarchy—once again. “A failure to stand against the use of chemical weapons would weaken prohibitions against other weapons of mass destruction, and embolden Assad’s ally, Iran, which must decide whether to ignore international law by building a nuclear weapon or to take a more peaceful path,” Obama said. “This is not a world we should accept. This is what’s at stake.”
The Syrian crisis emerged at a critical time: The regime in Tehran is about to make an existential choice under a new moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, and a worldly and Westernized foreign minister, Javad Zarif, who is the opposite of his hard-line predecessor. Will Iran surrender its nuclear program and rejoin the world, or will it remain the pariah it has been for decades? “An election that was expected to consolidate authority in the hands of defiant theocrats has unexpectedly opened a tentative door to conciliation,” writes Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, in a recent report. As a result, never has the image of American firmness against WMD proliferation been as important as it is right now.
No, America cannot and will not be the “policeman for the world,” as the president said in his speech. But it is still, unmistakably, “the anchor for global security.” What the Syria crisis underlines is the rock-bottom truth that there is no other enforcer but the United States when it comes to maintaining basic standards for a peaceful and stable international system. The United Nations and international law—such as it is—are empty shells without the United States. And while that system has suffered serious blows and often appears to be coming apart at the seams, battling the spread of WMD is clearly in America’s interest, even after a decade of war. To a degree Americans still seem unwilling to acknowledge (judging from the overwhelming poll numbers against any kind of military strike on Assad), there is a direct relationship between U.S. national security and securing that global order, with all of its “norms.”
Obama was reaffirming an even larger point, one going back to Woodrow Wilson. The world that Americans have always longed to keep at ocean’s length has become, to an extent most of us don’t realize, our world, shaped largely by U.S. values and U.S.-engendered institutions. Since World War II, we have been the chief architects of a vast, multidimensional global system that consists of trading rules, of international law, of norms for economic and political behavior. Imperfect though they are, the institutions of this system—the U.N., the World Trade Organization, among others—are the most powerful ever to exist and are fully entrenched. After centuries in which ever-shifting great-power rivalries governed world affairs, leading time and again to war, the best thing for the United States is to strengthen these institutions. Stopping the proliferation of chemical weapons and other WMD simply makes us all safer, and the only way to do it is through international cooperation.
All of which leads us to the biggest question right now: Does Russia genuinely agree with this assessment? Moscow seems to recognize it has a common interest with Washington not only in averting war but also in securing chemical-weapons stockpiles, especially when it comes to radical Islamists who covet them (along Russia’s southern border, among other places). On the other hand, Moscow likes nothing better than humiliating the nation that got the better of it in the Cold War. President Vladimir Putin genuinely sees Assad as an ally in Russia’s loose “sphere of influence.” That’s why the coming days will almost certainly see a fierce fight inside the U.N. Security Council over the language of a Syria resolution.
The main sticking points are these: Putin wants Obama to “renounce” the threat of force, while Obama insists it is the only thing that has gotten Assad to budge on chemical weapons. The U.S. president and his chief allies, France and a reenergized Britain (which is now back at the table despite Prime Minister David Cameron’s humiliating defeat in Parliament), will try to insist on what Russia has already said it can’t accept: that the resolution be binding under Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter, which allows for the use of force. The two sides will also wrangle bitterly over a deadline for Syrian cooperation: Obama will insist on one eventually (although right now he’s happy for the time-out), and Putin will try to keep things open-ended. It is over those two issues, among others, that the tentative Syria agreement could easily blow up. In which case, the president will have to go back to his uphill selling job on the use of force.
In the end, much will depend on what Putin and his wily foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, are really thinking. Is their surprise proposal just a ploy to make Obama look even more foolish than he would have otherwise looked, when the president faced a choice between defying Congress to bomb Damascus, thus inviting impeachment, or backing off his threat, thus inviting ridicule? As Obama himself said of the Russians in a Tonight Show appearance in August, “There have been times where they slip back into Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality. What I continually say to them and to President Putin, ‘That’s the past. We’ve got to think about the future.’ ”
In an effort to put the best possible face on Obama’s fumbling approach to Syria, administration officials are now playing up the idea that Obama and Putin first hatched the Syria idea together a year ago. But the truth is that it was only when Obama faced near-certain defeat in the House on a resolution authorizing the use of force, and Secretary of State John Kerry reluctantly refloated the idea of taking charge of Syria’s chemical weapons on Monday, that the Russians jumped on the proposal. All of which suggests that Moscow is less than sincere and is mainly trying to give Assad more time.
But if Obama can find a way to avoid yet another Russian veto in the Security Council, he could still achieve the leverage he needs with Assad. In the ultimate irony, perhaps the best precedent for what Obama is trying to do here comes from the predecessor whose legacy he has been running away from: George W. Bush. We tend to forget this now, but before he invaded Iraq, in the fall of 2002, Bush had won a big diplomatic victory against Saddam Hussein by threatening the use of force: a 15-0 Security Council vote giving him complete inspection access to Iraq. Had Bush stopped at that point—as Obama appears intent on doing with Syria—it would have strengthened the U.N., the international system, and American prestige, rather than leading to a chronic American reluctance to intervene ever again.