NEW YORK – In my experience, if you are attacked for your diplomacy from both left and right, by doves and hawks, and by internationalists and isolationists, you probably have it just right. In the avalanche of commentary on this month’s US-Russia deal on Syria’s chemical weapons, few have been prepared to call it a “win-win-win” outcome for the United States, Russia, and the Syrian people. But – at least so far – that is what it is. President Barack Obama and his team, despite some missteps, deserve most of the credit.
The charge sheet against Obama over Syria is long. The US, it is said, took no decisive action while 100,000 Syrians were dying, and it had no strategy to end the conflict. Obama created expectations that the US would act if chemical weapons were used, only to stall when the time came. Then, when a response became unavoidable, he threatened both too much and too little military force. He paid too little, then too much, attention to domestic opponents of intervention. Above all, he allowed an ever-cynical Kremlin to outplay the US diplomatically.
But consider the constraints. There was never a time in the crisis, until the chemical-weapons issue erupted, when US military intervention in any form seemed likely to save more lives than it would endanger. The increasing influence of jihadists in the rebel ranks made support for an outright opposition victory increasingly untenable. There simply was not enough hard evidence of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, at least before the Ghouta massacre in August, to pressure Russia – either in the United Nations Security Council or the court of global opinion – to reconsider its reflex support of the regime.
Moreover, while the Obama administration remained determined to preserve US leadership in responding – with force, where necessary – to mass atrocity crimes (the global “responsibility to protect” agenda), a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan has left Americans desperately war-weary. That is true in the West generally, as shown by the United Kingdom’s parliamentary vote against participating in any intervention. For almost everyone, George W. Bush’s “decisiveness” made vacillation seem like a better option.