Monday, September 9, 2013

Did John Kerry accidentally prevent the war?

The latest news on the Syria front is that Russia and Syria are considering a deal with the U.S. wherein Syria turns over its chemical weapons, and the U.S. keeps its planes and bombs on the ground at home.  I really hope this happens, for a variety of reasons:
  1. It would prevent the U.S. from getting involved in an ugly war, saving lives, money, and the like.

  2. It would make me look really smart, because I predicted it.
Really, I did!  Look at my post from August 31st:
A couple important elements of this plan are getting widely overlooked. One is time. Congress won't vote for at least a week, which means military strikes aren't going to happen for a while... That gives Assad a chance to react, which isn't an entirely a bad thing. Knowing he's in a bad spot, he's got a chance to forestall action against him by changing his current war footing--no compromise, total war--to something more acceptable to the United States. 
...
No one can question anymore that Obama is willing to attack Syria, even if an attack on Syria may or may not happen. And there's at least a good chance that it'll end with strikes being authorized. For Assad, it's not a shot across the bow, it's Russian Roulette, and the barrel is spinning. It's clever, because it demonstrates Obama's resolve without firing a shot. Combine that with the timing issue above, and it might force concessions from Syria without actual war.
Of course, before I get too big on myself, we have to remember that these negotiations could still go anywhere, or nowhere.  Syria hasn't proven itself the most reliable country to work with, and Assad is clearly under a lot of different pressures at the moment.  Russia is famously difficult as well.  The Syrian government obviously thinks its chemical weapon stockpiles provide it with some advantage, or it wouldn't have accumulated them; the idea that it would freely relinquish them in the middle of an existential conflict seems a little far-fetched.

Another strange aspect of this development is that appears to have been entirely accidental, arising from an apparently unplanned remark by John Kerry.

Now, that's not proof that it is accidental, because even if this were a carefully constructed gambit by the Obama administration, it would have to look inadvertent.  The reason why is simple: Assad's sincere belief that U.S. warplanes are on the way is creating pressure to negotiate.  If he discovers that the U.S. diplomatic strategy is a clever bluff intended from the outset to force a non-military settlement, he'd no longer feel that pressure, and we'd return to the "If you're going to hit me, then hit me!" standoff of two weeks ago.

With that said, if I were President Obama, and, having convinced the world that I wanted to bomb Syria, were trying to send out diplomatic feelers to Assad, a bumbling public remark from the Secretary of State isn't how I'd do it.  So I do think in all likelihood this sequence has just been a happy accident: the administration tripping into the opportunity it unknowingly created.  Still, worse things have happened.  Let's hope for a happy ending.

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