If you're an average American and are confused and worried about our getting embroiled in a no-win Syrian civil war, you're right to be concerned. It means you're paying attention. But if you're a member of Congress who's still wondering whether to grant President Barack Obama the authority to use force to deter Syrian President Bashar Assad from again murdering hundreds of his people with poison gas, it now makes sense to take a timeout. That also means you're paying attention.
A new situation has been created by the Russian offer — embraced by Obama, all of our major allies and China, but still only vaguely accepted by Syria — for Syria to turn over its stockpiles of poison gas to international control. Let's have no illusion. There's still a real possibility that the Russians and Syrians are just stalling and will fudge in the end, and even if one or both are serious, there are formidable logistical and political obstacles to securing Syria's chemical weapons swiftly and completely. Part of me wonders: Has anybody thought this through?
But all of me wants to acknowledge that if a Syrian surrender of poison gas were implemented — still a big if — it would be a good end to this near-term crisis. The global taboo on poison gas would be upheld, and America would not have to get embroiled in a shooting war in Syria.
In that context, I think it is worth Obama and Congress threatening to schedule a vote to endorse Obama's threat of force — if the Syrians and Russians don't act in good faith — but not schedule a vote right now. (That was essentially the president's message in his speech Tuesday night.) By "threatening to threaten," Obama would retain leverage to keep the Syrians and Russians focused on implementing any agreement — but without having to test Congress' real willingness to let him fulfill that threat. Because, if it failed to pass, the Russians and Syrians would have no incentive to move.
If all of this sounds incredibly messy and confusing, it is. And while Obama and his team have contributed to this mess by way too much loose talk, in fairness, there is also a deep structural reason for it. Obama is dealing with an Arab world that no modern president has had to confront. Until 2010, the Arab Middle East had been <i>relatively</i> stable for 35 years. The combination of the Cold War, the rise of oil-funded dictators who built strong security states and the peace between Egypt and Israel imposed order.
But the convergence in the 2010s of Arab population explosions, joblessness, environmental degradation, water scarcity, falling oil revenues and the information revolution blew apart governments that once seemed solid — Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq, Libya and Yemen — forcing us now to confront some new and very uncomfortable questions, not just the use of force.
One is this: Are some things true even if George W. Bush believed them? No one, hawk or dove, wants to see U.S. boots on the ground in Syria, under any conditions. Count me among them. The only problem is that it is impossible to imagine a solution to the conflict in Syria without some outside force putting boots on the ground. When you get the degree of state and social breakdown that you have in such a multitribal and multisectarian society as Syria, there is no trust with which to govern and rotate power. Therefore, you need either a midwife or a Mandela or a trusted military (?la Egypt) to referee the transition to a new order. And since Syria has no Mandela and no trusted military, it is going to need an external midwife. I understand why there are no volunteers, but the U.N. Security Council will eventually have to address this reality, otherwise Syria will become Afghanistan on the Mediterranean.