It is said that when famed Austrian diplomat Klemens von Metternich heard of the death of the Turkish ambassador, he said, "I wonder what he meant by that?" True or not, serious or a joke, it points out a problem of diplomacy. In searching for the meaning behind every gesture, diplomats start to regard every action merely as a gesture. In the past month, the president of the United States treated the act of bombing Syria as a gesture intended to convey meaning rather than as a military action intended to achieve some specific end. This is the key to understanding the tale that unfolded over the past month.
When President Barack Obama threatened military action in retaliation for what he claimed was the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, he intended a limited strike that would not destroy the weapons. Destroying them all from the air would require widespread air attacks over an extensive period of time, and would risk releasing the chemicals into the atmosphere. The action also was not intended to destroy Syrian President Bashar al Assad's regime. That, too, would be difficult to do from the air, and would risk creating a power vacuum that the United States was unwilling to manage. Instead, the intention was to signal to the Syrian government that the United States was displeased.
The threat of war is useful only when the threat is real and significant. This threat, however, was intended to be insignificant. Something would be destroyed, but it would not be the chemical weapons or the regime. As a gesture, therefore, what it signaled was not that it was dangerous to incur American displeasure, but rather that American displeasure did not carry significant consequences. The United States is enormously powerful militarily and its threats to make war ought to be daunting, but instead, the president chose to frame the threat such that it would be safe to disregard it.
Avoiding Military Action
In fairness, it was clear at the beginning that Obama did not wish to take military action against Syria. Two weeks ago I wrote that this was "a comedy in three parts: the reluctant warrior turning into the raging general and finding his followers drifting away, becoming the reluctant warrior again." Last week in Geneva, the reluctant warrior re-appeared, put aside his weapons and promised not to attack Syria.
When he took office, Obama did not want to engage in any war. His goal was to raise the threshold for military action much higher than it had been since the end of the Cold War, when Desert Storm, Somalia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq and other lesser interventions formed an ongoing pattern in U.S. foreign policy. Whatever the justifications for any of these, Obama saw the United States as being overextended by the tempo of war. He intended to disengage from war and to play a lesser role in general in managing the international system. At most, he intended to be part of the coalition of nations, not the leader and certainly not the lone actor.
He clearly regarded Syria as not meeting the newly raised standard. It was embroiled in a civil war, and the United States had not been successful in imposing its will in such internal conflicts. Moreover, the United States did not have a favorite in the war. Washington has a long history of hostility toward the al Assad regime. But it is also hostile to the rebels, who -- while they might have some constitutional democrats among their ranks -- have been increasingly falling under the influence of radical jihadists. The creation of a nation-state governed by such factions would re-create the threat posed by Afghanistan and leading to Sept. 11, and do so in a country that borders Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Israel and Lebanon. Unless the United States was prepared to try its hand again once again at occupation and nation-building, the choice for Washington had to be "none of the above."
Strategy and the specifics of Syria both argued for American distance, and Obama followed this logic. Once chemical weapons were used, however, the reasoning shifted. Two reasons explain this shift.
WMD and Humanitarian Intervention
One was U.S. concerns over weapons of mass destruction. From the beginning of the Cold War until the present, the fear of nuclear weapons has haunted the American psyche. Some would say that this is odd given that the United States is the only nation that has used atomic bombs. I would argue that it is precisely because of this. Between Hiroshima and mutual assured destruction there was a reasonable dread of the consequences of nuclear war. Pearl Harbor had created the fear that war might come unexpectedly at any moment, and intimate awareness of Hiroshima and Nagasaki generated fear of sudden annihilation in the United States.
Other weapons capable of massive annihilation of populations joined nuclear weapons, primarily biological and chemical weapons. Robert Oppenheimer, who oversaw the scientific work of the Manhattan Project, employed the term "weapon of mass destruction" to denote a class of weapons able to cause destruction on the scale of Hiroshima and beyond, a category that could include biological and chemical weapons.
The concept of weapons of mass destruction eventually shifted from "mass destruction" to the weapon itself. The use and even possession of such weapons by actors who previously had not possessed them came to be seen as a threat to the United States. The threshold of mass destruction ceased to be the significant measure, and instead the cause of death in a given attack took center stage. Tens of thousands have died in the Syrian civil war. The only difference in the deaths that prompted Obama's threats was that chemical weapons had caused them. That distinction alone caused the U.S. foreign policy apparatus to change its strategy.
The second cause of the U.S. shift is more important. All American administrations have a tendency to think ideologically, and there is an ideological bent heavily represented in the Obama administration that feels that U.S. military power ought to be used to prevent genocide. This feeling dates back to World War II and the Holocaust, and became particularly intense over Rwanda and Bosnia, where many believe the United States could have averted mass murder. Many advocates of American intervention in humanitarian operations would oppose the use of military force in other circumstances, but regard its use as a moral imperative to stop mass murder.
The combined fear of weapons of mass destruction and the ideology of humanitarian intervention became an irresistible force for Obama. The key to this process was that the definition of genocide and the definition of mass destruction had both shifted such that the deaths of less than 1,000 people in a war that has claimed tens of thousands of lives resulted in demands for intervention on both grounds.
The pressure on Obama grew inside his administration from those who were concerned with the use of weapons of mass destruction and those who saw another Rwanda brewing. The threshold for morally obligatory intervention was low, and it eventually canceled out the much higher strategic threshold Obama had set. It was this tension that set off the strange oscillations in Obama's handling of the affair. Strategically, he wanted nothing to do with Syria. But the ideology of weapons of mass destruction and the ideology of humanitarian intervention forced him to shift course.
An Impossible Balance
Obama tried to find a balance where there was none between his strategy that dictated non-intervention and his ideology that demanded something be done. His solution was to loudly threaten military action that he and his secretary of state both indicated would be minimal. The threatened action aroused little concern from the Syrian regime, which has fought a bloody two-year war. Meanwhile, the Russians, who were seeking to gain standing by resisting the United States, could paint Washington as reckless and unilateral.
Obama wanted all of this to simply go away, but he needed some guarantee that chemical weapons in Syria would be brought under control. For that, he needed al Assad's allies the Russians to promise to do something. Without that, he would have been forced to take ineffective military action despite not wanting to. Therefore, the final phase of the comedy played out in Geneva, the site of grave Cold War meetings (it is odd that Obama accepted this site given its symbolism), where the Russians agreed in some unspecified way on an uncertain time frame to do something about Syria's chemical weapons. Obama promised not to take action that would have been ineffective anyway, and that was the end of it.
In the end, this agreement will be meaningful only if it is implemented. Taking control of 50 chemical weapons sites in the middle of a civil war obviously raises some technical questions on implementation. The core of the deal is, of course, completely vague. At the heart of it, the United States agreed not to ask the U.N. Security Council for permission
to attack in the event the Syrians renege. It also does not clarify the means for evaluating and securing the Syrian weapons. The details of the plan will likely end up ripping it apart in the end. But the point of the agreement was not dealing with chemical weapons, it was to buy time and release the United States from its commitment to bomb something in Syria.
There were undoubtedly other matters discussed, including the future of Syria. The United States and Russia both want the al Assad regime in place to block the Sunnis. They both want the civil war to end, the Americans to reduce the pressure on themselves to aid the Sunnis, the Russians to reduce the chances of the al Assad regime collapsing. Allowing Syria to become another Lebanon (historically, they are one country) with multiple warlords -- or more precisely, acknowledging that this has already happened -- is the logical outcome of all of this.
The most important outcome globally is that the Russians sat with the Americans as equals for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In fact, the Russians sat as mentors, positioning themselves as appearing to instruct the immature Americans in crisis management. To that end, Putin's op-ed in The New York Times was brilliant.
This should not be seen merely as imagery: The image of the Russians forcing the Americans to back down resonates all along the Russian periphery. In the former Soviet satellites, the complete disarray in Europe on this and most other issues, the vacillation of the United States, and the symbolism of Kerry and Lavrov negotiating as equals will shape behavior for quite awhile.
This will also be the case in countries like Azerbaijan, a key alternative to Russian energy that borders Russia and Iran. Azerbaijan faces a second consequence of the administration's ideology, one we have seen during the Arab Spring. The Obama administration has demonstrated a tendency to judge regimes that are potential allies on the basis of human rights without careful consideration of whether the alternative might be far worse. Coupled with an image of weakness, this could cause countries like Azerbaijan to reconsider their positions vis-a-vis the Russians.
The alignment of moral principles with national strategy is not easy under the best of circumstances. Ideologies tend to be more seductive in generalized terms, but not so coherent in specific cases. This is true throughout the political spectrum. But it is particularly intense in the Obama administration, where the ideas of humanitarian intervention, absolutism in human rights, and opposition to weapons of mass destruction collide with a strategy of limiting U.S. involvement -- particularly military involvement -- in the world. The ideologies wind up demanding judgments and actions that the strategy rejects.
The result is what we have seen over the past month with regard to Syria: A constant tension between ideology and strategy that caused the Obama administration to search for ways to do contradictory things. This is not a new phenomenon in the United States, and this case will not reduces its objective power. But it does create a sense of uncertainty about what precisely the United States intends. When that happens in a minor country, this is not problematic. In the leading power, it can be dangerous.