Tag Archives: Syria

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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The Politics Behind Syrian Intervention

By: Jonathan Godoy

In the week and half since the chemical attacks in the suburbs of Damascus, very few pieces of truly new information have come to light. The only one of note seems to be a continuously hackneyed response and lack of leadership from premier world leaders, especially those of the United States and Western Europe. Nearly every leader in the international community has refused to actually engage the situation; most have done this not due to personal preferences, but because of political forces at home preventing them from undertaking anything remotely related to military action. This phenomenon’s most conspicuous victim, British Prime Minister David Cameron, suffered an embarrassing defeat when Parliament voted against launching any attacks by a small margin. The final actors still left on the stage, the United States, France and, to a lesser extent, Turkey, have adopted stances that are enigmatic and opaque—perhaps purposefully so. French President Francois Hollande has weakly expressed support for limited action. Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan has called for an international response, but refused to contribute serious military backing and resources to such an attack. Meanwhile, the United States has waxed and waned on its stance, with the president and Secretary of State John Kerry making statements that seek to strike a delicate, but at times conflicting, balance, the former remaining more calculated and ambiguous, while the latter being more critical and urgent in his remarks.

It is likely that the White House’s stance has been driven by two major factors. First, the president has always been reserved on issues of foreign intervention and stood purposefully apart from the so-called military “hawks.” Second, the administration is well aware that the present political climate at home is not friendly aggressive interventionism. Even after the chemical attack on August 21, polls show most Americans do not want direct military intervention. Additionally, the president’s approval ratings on foreign policy, once his strong suit, have taken a noticeable dip. Being the politically calculating man that he is, President Obama likely does not want to pursue a course of action that would tarnish his political image any more. All of these factors undoubtedly were motives for the president’s speech from the White House Rose Garden on Saturday morning.

Admittedly, the president took a justifiably strong stance in favor of action and outlined, with some degree of success, our national interest in following through with such a response. His major point—that America will follow through on its promises of military action and justice—is a crucial premise in the argument for an attack, however limited. It remains a fact that the promise to act if Assad used chemical weapons was made multiple times; it makes no difference whether such a red line resulted from well-thought policy and planning or were ad-libbed in order to maintain an image of strength and justice. Failure to follow through on such a promise would prove permanently damaging to our reputation and power of deterrence.

But here the positives of the American response to Syria end. The president’s new moves are nothing more than a blatant attempt to seek political coverage and dither further on the issue of an appropriate military response. Looking first on the question of timing, the president said that the timeframe for a response was unrestrained. According to him, he has been assured that an attack can occur months from now and still carry the same weight and effectiveness that an immediate response would hold. The reasoning behind this claim simply conflicts with the president’s point about credibility. A delaying of a response, in practice, gives Assad the incentive to use chemical weapons, at will, in the time until the attack occurs. Theoretically speaking, Assad will face no further costs for launching more attacks, thus giving him the ability, and incentive, to use such power. President Obama’s stated goal of preventing further attacks, and addressing our security concerns, becomes muddled and feckless. This, in turn, severely damages our reputation and deterrence ability. No longer will actions that work directly against our national interests be deterred for fear of an immediate and targeted military response. The initial dithering on the matter showed us ill prepared and weak, but this most recent point shows hesitance to use force in a situation where justice decidedly calls for it.

The delay is meant to accommodate a vote from Congress to support an attack. However, the president failed to call the members back from recess for a special session. If he truly saw this situation as one warranting an effective and powerful response, then the wait for Congress to return from break September 9 would be indefensible. This does not even consider the fact that he has had over a week to consult congressional leaders to argue in favor of attack and coordinate a vote.

What’s more, the deference to Congress elucidates the president’s self-centered political desires. The vote gives him a cover, a political “would-if-I-could.” Should he be granted congressional approval for attack, then his actions will be seen as politically legitimate. However, if Congress votes against action, then the president could easily blame the negative ramifications on their trepidation towards attacking. In short, President Obama has found a way to shift the onus of an attack and the liabilities therewith onto Congress, thus inoculating himself from any potential political damage. (The president, however, would be wise to recall that President Bush sought Congress’ approval for military action in both Iraq and Afghanistan, received it both times, and was summarily blamed for the failures and shortcomings of both wars.) In this endeavor the president believes he has killed two birds with one stone: He can appear with strength and resolve while still deflecting criticism of both action and inaction toward Capitol Hill.

The president claimed in his speech that this search for congressional approval is due to the United States being “the oldest constitutional democracy in the world,” one with a set standard of governance and rule of law. Such a claim is disingenuous and hollow. If he truly cared about following the appropriate procedure in seeking congressional approval, then he would have gone directly to Congress from the onset of this crisis. Most reports show that the president only decided to go to Congress this Saturday and surprised advisors with his announcement. Instead, he circumvented the legislature in favor of a unilateral and executive-centered approach. Likewise, the president, less than a minute after referencing this country’s rich constitutional tradition, stated that he believed he had the authority to launch an attack without consulting Congress. Such a claim directly contradicts his stated reason for going to Congress in the first pace. In it is revealed the president’s true view: that the Constitution provides not a strict set of rules by which to govern the country, but an undefined set of traditions and precedents that represent an outmoded and arbitrarily restrained rubric for governance. One cannot use the notion that the Constitution is a document that standardizes the decision-making procedure as a justification for pursuing greater consensus, while, at the same time, stating that the presidency possesses the authority to ignore it and make decisions unilaterally. Those two sentiments simply do not match up.

The issue of congressional approval is difficult one to settle. On the one hand, the War Powers Resolution allows for the president to send the military on short campaigns, of at most 60 days, without congressional approval. It would only be after 60 days when the president would be forced to seek Congress’s approval to continue the campaign. On the other hand, this engagement presents the United States with a difficult and potentially dangerous predicament that could lead to further hostilities in the region.  Failure to seek a bipartisan congressional consensus for attack could leave many on both sides angered with the lack of consultation. It is also fair to note in this discussion that the electorate and country, as a whole, is fairly war weary after more than a decade of conflict and would like to see the country take a diminishing military role, at least for the near future. Such a political dynamic is important to note in that in a republic, such as ours, popular sentiment cannot be wholly ignored on many matters, even when it would seem to go against the recommended course of action. Given this, it would seem wise for the president to go to Congress for approval or, at the very least, keep them abreast of the situation. His error was to argue for an attack out of a desire to maintain political credibility, not justice or the preservation of a reasonable international order.

This to say nothing of the major issues that the actual plan of attack presents. What purpose or strategic advantage does an attack “limited in scope” actually possess in deterring Assad from using chemical weapons later and restraining his power? The idea that we would publicly state that our intention is not regime change and that our attacks will be extremely confined is perplexing and harmful. Making such a statement ruined any hope we could have had to effect actual change and establish a strong precedent. The current limits imposed bring into question whether these attacks are useful or even necessary. The argument has already been put forth as to why a strong and effective response is necessary, but this plan of attack is nothing close to what is needed to truly address the issues the United States faces in the region.

During his speech on Saturday, the president exposed himself as a politically-driven and dangerously weak commander-in-chief. His demands, while on face value prudent and understandable, upon closer inspection are enigmatic and riddled with many errors and lapses in judgment. These new demands will likely only further weaken our image abroad and damage our enforcement capabilities, which were already hampered by the administration’s initially weak response to the attack. With this undisciplined behavior and moral morass, the message being sent to our enemies is a simple but damaging one: mess with us, and we will talk about doing something about it… at some point in the future.

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

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