Why Syria Is Obama’s Foreign Policy Proving Ground
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov
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The Fiscal Times
September 16, 2013

It is getting hard to count all the surprises arising from the Syrian crisis. And there are more coming. Outcomes unthinkable even a week ago can now be responsibly imagined—and pursued.

Atop this columnist’s wish list:

(1)          Relations between Washington and Tehran come out of the deep freeze for the first time in 34 years, transforming the Middle East dynamic.

(2)          The big-think crowd in Washington finally gets the compass out and puts American foreign policy on new bearings—riding the wave of the region’s immense vitality instead of resisting it, recognizing that its direction cannot be determined, not long term, from without.

Few have given this kind of thinking much attention: Washington has been flatfooted ever since the Arab Spring. Now it requires surrendering some longstanding presumptions as to American power and prerogative in the region. If the Obama administration is smart and brave enough, it can draw significant, even historic advantage from a shambolic interim in U.S. foreign affairs.


For one thing, the timing of this latest turn in the Syrian crisis could not match up more perfectly with Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani’s offer not just to improve relations with Washington but to shove them into an innovative phase of cooperation. For another, Obama can interpret Syria to Americans as the place where we finally overcame our addiction to unilateral “missions” and wars of choice.

The agreement Secretary of State Kerry signed Saturday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva outlining plans to dismantle Bashar–al Assad’s chemical weapons stockpiles was a stunner by common agreement. As the Financial Times recounted in a useful timeline, even Moscow was in a dither as Kerry and Lavrov negotiated.

At last we are getting beyond a military option against Assad that has never borne much scrutiny. It now looks so risky and irrational that even the people who hatched and propagandized the idea cannot get away from it fast enough. “President Obama is deeply committed to a negotiated solution,” Kerry said in Geneva over the weekend, referring to the man previously deeply committed to punishing Assad by way of intervention.

There is caution galore among U.S. officials, from Kerry on down, as to whether a solid agreement will emerge. Equally, no one knows whether implementing any such deal will prove workable. That could take us into next spring. As now worded, the pact will call for Syria’s chemical agent stockpiles to be destroyed by mid–2014.

It is not too early, however, to suggest that the military option is unlikely to be revisited as of this week, even as Obama and Kerry insist that they have not withdrawn it. There are three reasons to think so:

• A reckless course driven primarily by political baiting at home and a misplaced obsession with “credibility” abroad will look still more foolish if it involves tipping over months of multilateral diplomacy and verification work at the other end of the process now beginning. 

• Similarly, threatening or taking military action against another country will be no more lawful next spring than it is now. Washington’s usual ways around international law and the UN Charter came over as weak and persuaded few this time, even when the Obama administration hit its most assertive notes. The extra-legal case stands to get weaker from here on out, not stronger.  

One of the breakthroughs in Geneva was to move the Syria question into the UN framework. Once in, hard to take out is the thought. Lavrov has already advised Kerry that no UN resolution covering Assad’s possible failures to deliver on an agreement can call for a military response.

Realistically, then, the cruise missiles bit has had its time. Syria is a diplomat’s game now, and this is just as it should be.

The very key point as Kerry and Lavrov keep talking is to tie a pact on the chemical weapons question to a conference that will yield a political settlement. This seems to be the thought so far, and foregoing this goal would devalue (to one degree or another) the success of pulling Assad into the Chemical Weapons Convention and destroying his stockpiles.

A correspondent, editor and critic for more than 30 years, mostly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, Patrick Smith has also lectured in journalism and media studies. He is the author of five books.