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The Reluctant Commander-in-Chief and Syria

Last week’s address to the nation by U.S. President Barack Obama showed the complexity of the debate regarding Syria and the chemical attack of August 21.  Military strikes were still on the table during Obama’s address, but at the end of week Russia and the United States had come to an agreement regarding chemical weapons in Syria and the renewed role of the United Nations in eventually eliminating them.  While still open to doubt and debate about its impact and its results, it is easier to deal with diplomacy, even if it fails, than a potential war with no clear objectives or exit strategy.

Less than a month after the atrocious use of such weapons against a civilian population, Bashar al-Assad’s government now acknowledges the possession of such weapons when he spent years denying he had them.  This is no small feat, since Russia—the prime supplier of such armaments—began the process with the U.S. after days of attributing the attack to the rebels.

U.S. domestic politics, being what they are, are once again the subject of renewed partisanship (the GOP still has no coherent policy on Syria), division on means and objectives, and a general lack of public support for any military enterprise against Syria.  Obama’s decision to ask Congress may have been in line with his campaign rhetoric of 2008, but it had a lot to do with the British government losing a vote for the first time in 150 years on military action.  Since then, Obama’s detractors in Congress have given Russian President Vladimir Putin the credit for getting Obama “off the hook.”  They go a step further by calling Obama weak.

The fact is that the U.S. population is war-weary and skeptical about its leaders in both parties, as well as claims about the national interest.  When we go back to Lyndon Baines Johnson and the Vietnam War, Reagan and the Iran-Contra saga, or Bush’s claims of weapons of mass destruction to bring about regime change in Iraq, it is not surprising that Obama was facing an uphill battle with the general public to get an endorsement for military strikes.

Obama supporters are arguing that the initial threat of force from the president forced Putin to realize that his interests in the region could be seriously compromised either by changing the balance of power in the civil war, or unleashing events beyond Syria and into the  greater Middle East.   After consistently using its veto on Syria for the past two years, Russia began to see the need for a shift in strategy.  Historians will battle over the interpretation, but diplomacy with political tangible results is far better than war with no endgame in sight.

We in Canada continue to be faithful allies of the U.S.but we are not a complacent nation about international issues.  Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson in 1968 expressed his reservations to President Johnson on escalating the war in Vietnam, and he was proven right.  Prime Minister Jean Chrétien supported actions in Afghanistan but opposed the war in Iraq without UN support.  Canadians believe he made the right choice.  It is clear that Canadians are against the use of chemical weapons, but they are also sympathetic to a reluctant U.S. Commander-in-Chief who prefers to leave options open and explore new avenues, to one whose advisors fabricated a rationale for a war that the public came to regret and reject.

Nearly one month after the chemical weapons attack, the UN and the Security Council are finally engaged in a theater of war that has become a modern human tragedy.  The ultimate goals of this new UN initiative promoted by the U.S.-Russia diplomatic framework should be to eliminate chemical weapons and possibly lead to a process to bring the civil war to an end.  Obama may not win the style points, as he said, but if this agreement works out, history will judge it as a positive and determining development.  In the meantime, the U.S. still keeps all its options on the table by including military intervention.  Reluctance sometimes has its benefits.

*John Parisella is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently a visiting professor at the University of Montréal’s International Relations Center. He is also a Member of the Board of Directors of The Montreal Council on Foreign Relations.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Canada, Syria, Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin

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