The war in Syria: a confused state of affairs

English: The United Nations Security Council C...

English: The United Nations Security Council Chamber in New York, also known as the Norwegian Room Français: La Salle de réunion du Conseil de sécurité des Nations Unies à New York Nederlands: De Zaal van de Veiligheidsraad van de Verenigde Naties in New York (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m probably like most Americans: confused.  On one hand, I look at the pictures of the victims in Syria, not only the dead and injured from the chemical weapons attack, but also those in refugee camps or living in caves and wonder why the world can’t do anything to help.  On the other hand, there is a seemingly intractable diplomatic stalemate and no one wants “boot on the ground”.  So what to do.

The British drafted a resolution that was discussed by the United Nations Security Council condemning use of chemical weapons but it didn’t get anywhere because of the threat of a Russian veto.  This morning, the Guardian reports on President Putin’s reaction

Vladimir Putin has rejected US intelligence claims that Bashar al-Assad’s regime used chemical weapons in Syria, saying it would be “utter nonsense” for government troops to use such tactics in a war it was already winning.

“That is why I am convinced that [the chemical attack] is nothing more than a provocation by those who want to drag other countries into the Syrian conflict, and who want to win the support of powerful members of the international arena, especially the United States,” Putin told journalists in Vladivostok.

The Russian president also challenged the US to present its case for military intervention to the UN security council, after suggesting that if Barack Obama was worthy of his Nobel peace prize, he should think about the possible victims of any intervention by foreign forces.

Is this a signal that the United States should wait to take action?  Is Putin ready to compromise – or at least to talk?

Meanwhile John Kerry, the hero of the anti-Vietnam War movement, is sounding more and more like Donald Rumsfeld – or maybe Colin Powell at the UN.  The New York Times reports

Again and again, some 24 times in all, he used the phrase “we know” as he described the intelligence that Syria’s government massacred more than 1,400 people with chemical weapons. And then, while saying no decision had been made, he left no doubt that the United States would respond with military power.

“We know that after a decade of conflict, the American people are tired of war — believe me, I am, too,” said Mr. Kerry, who opposed the Iraq war in his failed presidential bid in 2004. “But fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility. Just longing for peace does not necessarily bring it about. And history would judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turned a blind eye to a dictator’s wanton use of weapons of mass destruction against all warnings, against all common understanding of decency.”

Just seven months after being sworn in as secretary of state, Mr. Kerry has become President Obama’s frontman in the public argument for a military strike against the Syrian government. While the president sounds restrained in his language and even perhaps personally ambivalent about the operation he seems likely to order, Mr. Kerry came across on Friday as an unstinting advocate for action against what he called “a despot’s brutal and flagrant use of chemical weapons.”

The problem is that we were lied to once, told that there was intelligence that proved there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and even though some of us may want to trust Kerry, it is hard to do so even with the level of specificity in the summary report he released.

As to allies, the British Parliament has voted not to participate in any military action and French public opinion is also against.  The Arab League has said that while they think Assad used chemical weapons, they can’t support any military action.  The public here is lukewarm at best.

This is not Libya.  In Libya there was a recognized opposition which had actually established a shadow government with diplomats working with the European Union, Arab League and the United States.  We know that when she was Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton tried hard to get the opposition in Syria to form a similar government but was unable to do so.  The situation is that someone, most likely the Syrian government or someone fighting with the government, has used chemical weapons on the civilian population.  (I think we can trust Doctors Without Borders when they say they were used.)  This use goes against what 99% of the world’s people believe is right.

A large, but so far not a majority, of members of Congress think there should be a debate and resolution under the War Powers Act.  I know that Kerry and the President both believe they have already followed the Act by consulting with Congress.  It is up to John Boehner and Harry Reid to call Congress back for a debate and not just a consultation.  The question now is whether Obama will act before they can do so.  The summit for the G20 is next week.  Will the missiles fly before then?  The UN inspectors have left Syria.  Have they been told an attack is imminent?

I’m not sure that I agree with Bob Dreyfuss who called the President a “schoolyard bully” but there is a great deal of irony in seeing two men who made their reputations opposing war now trying to justify military action.

Let’s say the President waits a week.   He can talk to folks at the summit.  The UN Security Council can talk some more.  Congress gets back into town and holds a debate.  I don’t see that anything is lost.  The Syrians have all ready evacuated areas and moved military assets so maybe we don’t need an actual strike with the potential for civilian casulties.  Plus we don’t really know all the consequences of a strike.  More acts of terrorism in the United States?  More chemical attacks on civilians?  A wider conflict?  An excuse for the Republicans to try to impeach him?

There are a lot of negatives and unknowns to military action, but I haven’t heard a credible alternative either.  I can only hope that the President, who says he hasn’t made up his mind yet, thinks about this a bit longer.  Maybe he is actually like the rest of us – wanting to do something, but not sure what the something should be.  All the more reason to wait.

Queen Elizabeth at the United Nations

On July 6, Queen Elizabeth addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations for eight minutes.  The speech received little of no attention and I wouldn’t even have known about it until I read the most recent Newsweek and Jon Meacham’s very interesting thoughts on the speech.

Queen Elizabeth

First from the New York Times

Queen Elizabeth II addressed the United Nations for the first time since 1957 on Tuesday, paying homage to the organization’s accomplishments since she last stood at the famous green podium of the General Assembly.

It was a brief speech (see text), just eight minutes, assuring that  the queen’s remarks would not join the annals of infamous harangues from the podium delivered by long-reigning leaders like Muammar al-Qaddafi, who spoke for more than 90 minutes last fall, or Fidel Castro of Cuba. It was the first of three public visits during the queen’s daylong stop in New York City.

On her first visit, just four years after she took the throne, the queen came gliding into the United Nations in a black slip dress (or at least it looked black in the rapturous newsreels about the visit), high heels and a fur wrap. There was definitely no need for the fur wrap in the suffocating July heat on Tuesday — the queen wore a flowered suit and a curvy, elegant hat.

If the monarch, now 84, did not exactly sweep through the hall with the same grace as her 31-year-old self, the United Nations building itself looked rather more tattered, only now undergoing its first renovations since it was built around 1950.

So what did Jon Meacham make of the speech?

Given her audience and the constitutional restraints on her role—the personification of political life, she must be above politics—Elizabeth’s brief address could be read as an exercise in ceremonial conventionality. Yet her little-noted remarks offer a meditation on globalism and post-imperialism from a woman whose ancestors ruled much of the world. For American conservatives who worry that President Obama (or, really, any Democratic president) veers dangerously close to “one worldism,” the queen’s speech in New York serves as an inadvertent endorsement of a habit of mind in which power, both military and economic, is best exercised cooperatively rather than coercively. Saluting the U.N.’s diplomatic and relief work, she specifically cited the challenges of terrorism and climate change; the latter is of special concern, she said, for a “careful account must be taken of the risks facing smaller, more vulnerable countries, many of them from the Commonwealth.”

Meacham continues

What she takes very seriously—and I use that “very” advisedly—is the British Commonwealth, the loose association of 54 countries of which she is the titular head. There is no single superpower in her realm; she came to the throne in 1952 in the aftermath of World War II, a conflict in which the U.K. saved freedom but lost an empire. She has spent the last half century offering the Commonwealth a kind of subtle but steady rhetorical leadership—not unlike that provided by the U.N.

In a world of asymmetrical threats—terror, nuclear proliferation, disease, poverty, and climate change—multilateralism is not, to borrow an image from Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations, a policy of choice but of necessity. This does not mean America ought to go limp. Quite the opposite, in fact: the projection of our strength is magnified when we project it in concert with allies, whether through the U.N., NATO, or some provisional force created for a given military or policy purpose.

Foreign-policy doctrines are, in my view, chiefly useful in retrospect, not in real time, for the making of policy is almost always provisional, subject to the forces and the exigencies of a given moment. Which is why if we have to go it alone, we will. We learned how from Elizabeth’s first prime minister, Winston Churchill. But those hours will prove the exception, not the rule.

The rule is a world like Elizabeth’s Commonwealth. And the work endures. Quoting the late U.N. secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld, the queen said, “ ‘Constant attention by a good nurse may be just as important as a major operation by a surgeon.’ Good nurses get better with practice; sadly, the supply of patients never ceases.”

This quote from Queen Elizabeth sums up what she believes and what I think Barack Obama’s view of diplomacy comes close to

It has perhaps always been the case that the waging of peace is the hardest form of leadership of all.  I know of no single formula for success, but over the years I have observed that some attributes of leadership are universal, and are often about finding ways of encouraging people to combine their efforts, their talents, their insights, their enthusiasm and their inspiration, to work together.

I have to think that the conservative, George W. Bush/Dick Cheney/Tea Party view of the world where the United States is the ultimate power and can just tell other countries what is going to happen is rapidly becoming outdated.  The world is becoming a large democracy with everyone needing to have a say.  We need to listen to the Queen and work together.