Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Postponing an attack on Syria: what does the moment mean?

I would rather be posting about other stuff than a possible US intervention in Syria.

But wars are important. And this time we can celebrate not having one, at least for the moment.

Joan Walsh puts in this way in Diplomacy wins — for now Salon 09/11/2013:

Eerily, on the 12th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, people who argued about the Syria nightmare in good faith can all declare victory, for now. Those of us who insisted that the U.S. should exhaust all diplomatic possibilities before military action were right – and now we’re going to have a chance to see where diplomacy can go. Conventional wisdom said the U.N. Security Council was a dead end given Russia’s veto power — but now both the Security Council and Russia are engaged.
On a strictly realist basis, she's probably also right about this:

Certainly U.S. and global opposition to military intervention in Syria helped get us here, but I can’t say Obama's promise to use force didn't play a role as well. In the last few days Syria has not only admitted to possessing weapons for the first time, but Assad is promising to join the international Chemical Weapons Convention. I don't have any reason to believe either thing would have happened, this week, without the threat of force.
As I said yesterday, if taking credit for being a macho, macho man gives Obama a way to back off from an unnecessary and highly risky war, also an illegal one, that's fine with me.

Beltway Village foreign policy, short course:

But also in the realist spirit, we should add there that it was the stunning failure of the Obama Administration to generate support in Congress, in the international community or among the American public that created an opening for this peace initiative to have a chance.

Joan also observes:

Personally I think one of the most important factors in the surprising events of the last few days was the president going to Congress. Since antiwar public opinion forced the president to do that, I give a lot of credit to antiwar public opinion. And since it was the president who decided to go to Congress, when he believes he didn't have to, I give him credit, too. I guess it's clear I think the search for credit and blame is useless right now, as well as divisive.
I believe Obama's going to Congress must be a main thing Gene Lyons has in mind when he writes in Obama Gives Democracy A Chance In Syrian Crisis National Memo 09/11/2013 (which he says on Facebook that he completed before Obama's speech): "It's not necessary to think that President Obama has performed brilliantly throughout this debacle to suspect that next time around it's going to be much harder for an action-hero president to stampede the country into war."

And he continues, "As a corollary, hawkish politicians will find it more difficult to intimidate skeptics by questioning their patriotism."

He also notes what a difference a decade or so can make:

Ten years ago, fools were pouring Bordeaux wine into gutters and ordering "freedom fries" because the French urged the Bush administration to let U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq do their work. Ten years ago, American agents were kidnapping suspected terrorists and delivering them into Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad's dungeons to be tortured. Ten years ago, "diplomacy" was a dirty word, a synonym for cowardice.

Ten years ago, President Bush, having promised to put his case against Saddam Hussein to a vote in the UN Security Council, reneged on that vow, ordered weapons inspectors busily finding no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to clear out, and commenced his "shock and awe" bombing campaign. The "embedded" American news media treated the subsequent invasion like the world’s largest Boy Scout Jamboree.

These days, diplomacy gets more respect. Most Americans hope for the success of a French-sponsored Security Council resolution transferring custody of Syria's arsenal of chemical weapons to international monitors. The numbers in a recent New York Times poll reflect a massive change in public opinion. Six out of ten Americans oppose bombing Syria. Sixty-two percent say the United States should avoid taking the lead role in solving foreign conflicts.
[my emphasis]
I see Joan Walsh has also noticed how illegal it would be for the United States to begin a war with Syria when that country has not attacked the United States:

The pause in the charge to war is welcome, even if the charge to diplomacy has its own problems. The Russians are reportedly blocking a Security Council resolution proposed by the French; post-speech cable news analysis made a lot of this, as though a military strike would be a cakewalk, in the words of GOP hawks in 2003. Of course there are plenty of obstacles to a negotiated settlement – including the Syrian rebels. Let’s remember they were the ones who rejected talks with Assad proposed by Kerry and his Russian counterpart in July. This is a mess.

But at least for now, diplomacy won, and whatever it took, it’s a surprising and welcome development. Though Obama still insists the U.S. will stand up to Syria to enforce international sanctions against chemical weapons, a unilateral strike against Syria would itself violate international law. With the ongoing unexpected engagement of Russia, we have a chance at assembling an international coalition to enforce international law. It’s a sobering place to be on another Sept. 11. [my emphasis]
I should mention here that I've been assuming that the international law governing the use of chemical weapons applies to Syria, even though Syria has not yet ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) that defines it. And it does look to me like that would be the case with use of chemical weapons by Syria against another country.

There's a cynical European saying, "Wars are God's way of teaching Americans geography." They are also a way of teaching us something about international law. I remember learning for the first time during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s when international attention focused on the Serbian "rape camps" in Bosnia-Herzogovia, that soldiers raping civilians was not a war crime. Not every horrible or immoral thing is illegal, and that's more true of international law than national.

We've been hearing the stories for days now, including in Obama's speech last night, about children being horribly killed by poison gas in Syria.

But our lazy press doesn't seem much interested in fishing out whether using poison gas in an internal civil war is illegal in international law. The non-UN Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPVW) is the international agency charged with enforcing the CWC. Just after the August gas attack in Syria, they issued a statement in their director's name that was obviously carefully worded (08/23/2013):

The OPCW Director General, Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü, is gravely concerned about the latest allegations of use of chemical weapons in suburban Damascus reportedly resulting in tragic loss of innocent civilian lives. Any use of chemical weapons is abhorrent and stands fully condemned by the international community as embodied in the Chemical Weapons Convention and underlined in its near universal acceptance. [my emphasis]
To my non-specialist eye, CWC Article 1's prohibition of the use of chemical weapons does seem to mean they would be banned for internal use, not just in international warfare. But 1.5 also says, "Each State Party undertakes not to use riot control agents as a method of warfare." How big a loophole is that? I genuinely don't know.

And Syria has not yet ratified the CWC. Even if the Convention does ban their use internally to a country, would that apply to a non-signatory power like Syria was in August? I don't know.

To close, I don't claim to see the Owl of Minerva. (From Hegel's "Preface" to the Philosophy of Right: "When philosophy paints its gray on gray, then has a form of life grown old, and with gray on gray it cannot be rejuvenated, but only known; the Owl of Minerva first takes flight with twilight closing in.")

But I am struck by how the warmongering from the White House that was being faithfully and superficially transmitted by the compliant mainstream press fell flat in its actual effects this time as far as swaying public opinion. I would like to think this is a sign that despite non-stop fear mongering from our vastly bloated national security establishment that we may have finally reached the post-"post 9/11" era when it comes to foreign wars and public opinion.

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