A Tale of Serial Incompetence

By: Jonathan Godoy

“Trust, but verify.” This famous Ronald Reagan quip has been touted recently by President Obama to explain his administration’s approach to the proposal from Russia to have Syria transfer authority of its chemical weapons to the “international community.” The phrase is an attempt to draw parallels between Reagan’s handling of the end of the Cold War and this president’s new efforts to reach an effective and lasting diplomatic solution to the Syrian issue. The use of the phrase, however, stands as little more than a savvy attempt at political pandering and not a sincere expression of the Obama administration’s diplomatic strategy. The two scenarios carry major situational differences and provided the respective commanders-in-chief with altogether dissimilar predicaments.  President Reagan, on the one hand, was dealing with a crumbling state whose leader, by his own volition and with few other remedies, had begun the process of reforming the Soviet Union’s domestics politics and economics and shown interest in negotiating with the United States over the issue of arms stockpile reduction. It is only after careful analysis and repeated solid pronouncements of U.S. principles and demands that such negotiations were commenced and that the doctrine of “trust, but verify” was used. On the other hand, President Obama has no such reassurances from the main perpetrator, Syria, or the alleged good-faith mediator Russia. In fact, both countries have shown themselves to be deceitful and duplicitous, at best, in their dealings. Syria, in addition to denying the existence of its chemical weapons stockpile for many years, has shown itself willing to aid known terrorist groups, such as Hezbollah, and enemy states like Iran. Meanwhile, Russia, under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin, has been nothing if not untrustworthy, granting political asylum to Edward Snowden despite our pleas to do otherwise, aiding Assad with military resources to continue his campaign of terror and atrocities and being essentially complicit with Iran in its pursuit of a nuclear weapon.

However, the problems with this administration’s handling of the crisis do not end there. The most recent developments in this Syrian saga are byproducts of an administration that is wholly inept at mastering the art of diplomacy, a view that is reinforced when considering that its actions in the past three weeks have largely been marked by incoherence in messaging and weak, if at all existent, leadership. Consider how this most recent proposal from Russia came about. In a press conference this past week in France, a reporter asked Secretary of State John Kerry if there was any action the Syrian regime could take that would avert pending U.S. military strikes and bring about a more diplomatic end to this question over its possession of chemical weapons. Secretary Kerry, in a statement that the State Department would later characterize as a “hypothetical” scenario and not an official proposition, said, almost sarcastically, that the only such remedy would be for Syria to almost immediately transfer control of its chemical weapons stockpile over to the international community within the arbitrary timeline given of about a week. To this comment Secretary Kerry was quick to note that such an outcome was improbable, if only for political or logistical reasons, adding, “…but he [Assad] isn’t about to do that and it can’t be done.”

However, in such a comment, which received a fair deal of media coverage and criticism, Syria and its persistently stubborn ally Russia found a convenient way out. Syria would promise to transfer control of its weapons stockpile to the international community and open its facilities to inspection. In return, as Putin has demanded, the United States would promise to not use military force on Syria, a costly and unwise move. Ironically, in this misstatement President Obama has found a political escape. Facing the likely prospect of losing the vote for authorization of an attack in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, the administration found itself in something of a constitutional and political bind. Losing such a vote would likely have called into question the president’s constitutional authority to launch such an attack, something he claims to have had all along, should he have decided to do so against congressional will. Likewise, given the amount of political capital the White House has spent on this vote, a loss would have proved a major blow to an already weak and diminishing presidency

Hence, in the hours following the Russian proposal, the administration began to rapidly shift its tone with regards to the attack. No longer were Secretary Kerry’s comments unplanned, hypothetical and unserious; they were now intended, calculated words that were reflective of the president’s will all throughout this ordeal to seek a diplomatic resolution. No longer was a military attack the best option for a response after “careful consideration” from the president; it now became secondary to the proposed diplomatic solution. During his six interviews Monday afternoon, President Obama, instead of focusing on the arguments in favor of a military strike as he has done for the past few weeks, emphasized this Russian proposal, at one point calling it a “potentially positive development.” Moreover, he claimed that the proposal, the foundations of which were allegedly formed in his various discussions with Putin over the year, was always in serious consideration by the administration. This series of developments begets a simple question for the administration: how does that narrative make sense? How is it that the president can come out and defend a military strike as the “best option,” but then reverse course and indicate that the diplomatic solution has always been the preferable one? The level of serial incompetence and willful deceit that this most recent affair reveals comes from this administration should astound even the most stubbornly blind supporter of this president. Irrespective of whether or not one supports this administration’s expressed intention to strike Syria, it is difficult to defend the manner in which they have handled the messaging. This episode stands as only one example in a series of missteps and contradictions that this administration has committed. Their messaging efforts have been uncoordinated, at best, and incoherent, at worst. Everything from the size and scope of the strike (from “unbelievable small” to “more than a pinprick”) to the ultimate aims of this mission, as highlighted above, has been muddled and given the American citizens and politicians little cause for confidence or support.

It is because of this ineptitude that the United States finds itself caving to the requests and trusting the promises of a regime that has killed over 100,000 of its own civilians and its conniving ally whose past behavior has been, at best, dubious. It is amazing to consider that we are willing to place our faith, for the time being, on these two regimes all to save the administration from a political disaster. What incentives does the Syrian regime have to actually give up all of its weapons? If it has been willing to deny the existence of such a stockpile in the past, why should we suddenly consider its word trustworthy enough to cease our strikes? The problem of asymmetric information is obvious: only Assad knows where all of his chemical weapons stockpiles are located and how many actually exist. Should inspectors be allowed to enter into his country to remove them, he need not take them to all of the locations as accountability would be non-existent given that there is no way of independently verifying how many weapons there are in his arsenal. This is a blatant misapplication of the policy of “trust, but verify.” Such an approach was not meant to justify placing our blind trust in the promises of a regime that were made on a whim thanks to an adversary’s misstatement and had no previous history of deferring to similar demands. This is not prudent and sound diplomacy; it’s just basic ignorance.

An important side note in this saga is the fact that the relocation and destruction of chemical weapons is not a simple process that can be easily accomplished within a few months by amateurs. On the contrary, given the nature of the weapons, destroying them requires a complex, lengthy procedure so as to ensure that the gases and biological agents do not escape. Consider the United States, which signed the Chemical Weapons Convention and began the process of destroying its chemical weapons stockpiles over three decades ago. Though an estimated 90% of the arsenal has been eliminated, the military projects that the process will not be completed until the year 2023. The level of expertise and size of manpower necessary to carry out this process is significant and something that Syria severely lacks. Some estimates indicate that thousands of experts would be needed just to retrieve and relocate the weapons alone, an effort that would admittedly be quite difficult and dangerous in the middle of a civil war. The current proposal, which would have inspectors almost immediately enter Syria to retrieve the weapons and have the entire arsenal destroyed by mid-2014, is likely unrealistic.

Despite the secretary of state’s continued reassurances that the United States is not in the business of “playing games” with this deal, it is painfully evident that we have already been played.  The only man with a plan in this ordeal is likely Putin. This agreement accomplishes all of his and Assad’s main goals. First, it stops or, at the very least, delays a military strike on Syria. Secondly, it allows for Assad to retain power and maintain an upper hand in the current conflict.  Thirdly, it likely secures Assad’s ability to continue the wholesale slaughtering of his people. The truth is that even if the Assad regime voluntarily gives up all of its chemical weapons, an act that it really carries no incentive to do, it can continue to carry out its repressive campaign against the rebels using conventional weapons, which have proved fairly effective already, and likely receive no major pushback from the United States or its Western allies. Herein lies the greatest flaw in the approach of the United States. Despite earlier calls from President Obama for Assad’s ousting, his administration has publicly stated that the goal of such a strike is not regime change. Citing the fears of embroiling the country in another Iraq-like scenario, administration officials have emphasized that this campaign will be limited to trying to disrupt Assad’s capabilities to use chemical weapons. While such concerns post-Iraq are valid given the current popular sentiment with respect to “nation building” and our decade’s long experience with such a practice, this fear is a bit exaggerated, seeing as there will be no ground troops deployed, and evades a more pressing issue: the lack of attention and concern the Obama administration has had for the Syria crisis. The argument that many skeptics have made, including officials in the administration, in justifying not supporting the rebels is that many of the factions that compose such a rebellion have been infiltrated and are influenced by Islamic terrorist groups, namely al Qaeda. While those concerns are valid, that argument does not acknowledge the fact that, at the inception of this civil war, these rebellion factions were largely void of such influence. Yet, the administration remained noticeably and regretfully silent and separated from the civil war and refused to support the factions with arms and vital logistical resources, despite the obvious interests the United States had in ousting Assad. This power vacuum allowed for al Qaeda to take advantage of the fractious nature of the rebellion and corral a group of rebels to join their cause in exchange for their support and guidance. So while the concerns that the administration has regarding the chaos that a post-Assad Syria may bring is legitimate, such fears conveniently ignore that this predicament is likely a direct byproduct of their initial inaction.

Moreover, the current deal strengthens Russia’s influence in the Middle East by weakening the United States’ reputation and deterrence power, which was likely already diminished thanks to this bumbling administration. By legitimizing Russia as an impartial power broker, the United States has implicitly given Russia greater stature and lessened the amount of faith that our allies have in us. The emboldened Putin brandished his newfound clout with a mocking and insulting op-ed that appeared in the New York Times this past Thursday, wherein he chastised the United States for its tendency to engage in harmful and arbitrary military interventions and undermining the rule of international law. The idea that a man who is guilty of grave human rights abuses, invaded a sovereign state, against the will of most nations and without a coalition, in 2008 and has worked tirelessly to limit the influence of the Security Council and the United Nations in intervening in cases like Syria and Iran would criticize the United States for its supposed brazenness is laughable and indicative of the bravado that this most recent episode has given him. The proposal presented is a weak one and should be met with a good deal of skepticism by the United States, if not altogether rejected in favor of a more forceful diplomatic deal, overseen by a more trustworthy mediator, or a continued push for attack. Unfortunately, the politically crass administration’s pursuit of a route that will save face at home will likely force its hand to work and accept this deal, regardless of the major issues inherent in it.

Three weeks later, the hopes many espoused that this administration would find a lasting and meaningful resolution to this crisis remain just as dim and minimal as they were at the onset. Its series of mistakes, blunders and general incompetence have rendered the chances of finding a sound solution all but non-existent. The weakness and clumsiness exhibited by this president and his foreign policy team is embarrassing and has likely damaged this country’s image and reputation abroad. Recent activity from our enemies, including the report that North Korea has restarted operations at one of its nuclear reactors that has been shutdown since 2007 and the new that Putin is travelling to Iran to discuss its nuclear weapons program, seem to indicate that the negative effects of this ordeal are already unfolding. The most disconcerting fact, however, is that there still remains three more years until this inept leadership can finally be voted out.

Jonathan Godoy is a third year in the College majoring in Political Science.


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