This is Not the Diplomacy You’re Looking For

September 19, 2013

Washington breathed a rare collective sigh of relief over the past week as the prospect for a diplomatic solution to the Syria crisis appeared to present itself. There is still a little bit of grumbling from the few who were spoiling for a fight just a little bit more than the others. But most in the Obama Administration, Congress, and the commentariat were more than happy to turn back from the brink of the proposed “unbelievably small” strikes on Syria to defend the red line against chemical weapons use.

The rush to praise this supposed triumph of diplomacy, and the relative lack of partisan or ideological rancor over the Obama Administration’s foreign-policy-by-blunder, are telling. A week ago, pundits, Congressional leaders, and the President were lining up to urge America to go to war (while insisting it wouldn’t be war), citing a dazzling array of logics, which at the outer bounds included thoughts on eating Cheerios with a fork and the obligatory Munich analogy (among others, Bernard-Henri Lévy took this one up at WSJ). The more substantive arguments called on the nation’s obligation to stop the slaughter of innocent children and the imperative to uphold US credibility in the face of a challenge to a declared red line.

A majority of the American public was actively opposed to a new military adventure. Only a few, mostly our foreign policy pundits, were really in favor of the attacks. The rest of the country was uninterested to mildly persuaded by the op-eds. . In contrast, former officials, columnists, and prominent academics lined up to urge America to action in newspaper op-ed columns and on Sunday talk shows. Either-or scenarios were common fare, as titular and thought leaders warned against the dangers of isolationism, weakness, and even callousness in the face of what they labeled as a clarion call to take up America’s role as world leader.

The deflation of this rhetoric by the pinprick of faux pas diplomacy should tell us a great deal about what the proposed military intervention would have accomplished: nothing. It would have been nothing more than kinetic rhetoric… the use of millions of dollars of cruise missiles to make an explosive, if rhetorical, point. The Obama Administration’s proposed resort to military force was meant only (whether consciously or sub-consciously) to assuage the shame of inaction and to make a theoretical point about the international order and America’s place atop it.

The bankruptcy of strategic thought in America today left the Administration and the country with nothing but these choices: use military force or do nothing. The weight of public opinion against another ill-defined commitment and the massive effort that would be required to really stop the slaughter in Syria meant that the military option was meaningless. Yet, America’s braintrust, which has been faithfully trying for over two decades now to stuff the amorphous post-1989 world into a Cold War box, could think of nothing more than a Vietnam-era campaign of high-explosive resolve to maintain “credibility.”

If the foreign policy leadership was truly concerned about red lines and credibility, then it would be far less sanguine about a proposed diplomatic “solution” that consisted of a long-standing diplomatic foe, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, seizing on the incautious words of an amateurish Secretary of State to call America’s bluff and remove the basis for any decisive action against Syria whatsoever. The lesson here will be, once again, that diplomacy (as an afterthought, though that ellipsis will slip from memory) cannot guard red lines.

But the acceptance of diplomacy was not so much reflective of a realpolitik  mindset on the part of the American parties, but rather a sigh of relief.  “Thank goodness. We couldn’t think of anything but another bombing campaign and now Lavrov has saved our bacon.” They didn’t actually say that, of course. It was Kerry who, in the hurriedly revised narrative, was portrayed as having been working for a diplomatic solution all along.

While the proposal has been called a win-win, this sad turn of events will be anything but. The Syrian people will lose. American credibility will lose. International norms will lose. The reputation of diplomacy will lose. Only Assad and his Russian supporters will win.

Even as the Russian government has turned to attacking the credibility of the UN and its investigation of the August 21 incident, Assad has been raised from the level of international pariah about to be bombed, back to head of state “responsibly” complying with international agreements and administering his country’s accession to the international convention on chemical weapons. While the opposition remains divided, increasingly brutal, and extreme in its web of affiliations, the focus has shifted from Assad’s wanton slaughter of his people to his role as an international statesman. One cannot be sure of where this all will end, but one can hardly see the Syrian government and the Russians responsibly sticking to a timeline for chemical weapons turnover that would be optimistic even under peaceful conditions, much less stopping the conventional slaughter any time soon.

No, this is not the diplomacy you’re looking for.

Yet, when your default choices are military force or nothing, this is the diplomacy you get. And that is the yawning gap that America’s foreign policy elites must look to fill. Times have changed. Support for, and utility of, military force to address the world’s complex problems has been waning for a long time. Yet, America lacks a third way. Our leadership excoriates the public’s tendency toward isolationism. But this isolationism comes in the face of a plea for yet another military intervention on the heels of a long escalation, during which time the nation’s top thinkers have failed to generate any other ideas of substance. Can the public be blamed?

In the future, America’s leadership may want to try diplomacy first—diplomacy as a policy choice—instead of falling over backward into it. America should lead the diplomatic effort, not be backed into a diplomatic blind corner and mugged in slow motion. The rush to use military force has made the United States afraid of the United Nations and afraid of diplomacy (on more than just this occasion), as if giving full due diligence to these avenues and exhausting their possibilities might interfere with rigid mobilization timetables. Or, perhaps a more modern corollary is that once you have arrayed your military might for a strike, having failed to exhaust the diplomatic options, any delay sends the meter of defense spending for extended deployments spinning wildly.. Yet, if they tried diplomacy first instead of last, they would be less likely to be tripped up on their rush to war. Diplomacy skeptics will say that diplomacy has become nothing but a delaying tactic in an era of Chinese and Russian obstinacy.  But could proactively playing out this clock and hoping for a resolution—while preparing for the continuation of politics by other means—truly be worse than ceding the role of responsible diplomat to the likes of Lavrov and Assad?

No, this is not the diplomacy you’re looking for.


Peter J. Munson is responsible for preventive services and global crisis management for a private sector corporation, coming to this position after his retirement from the US Marine Corps in 2013. He is a Middle East specialist with professional proficiency in Arabic. Munson is the author of two books: “War, Welfare & Democracy: Rethinking America’s Quest for the End of History” and “Iraq in Transition: The Legacy of Dictatorship and the Prospects for Democracy.”


Photo Credit: U.S. State Department