It’s been over a week. That’s the appropriate time to draw lessons, right? Alright, let’s make a quick run down of the situation.
Without warning, Putin offered something approaching a good idea
He did this to save Assad from an impending military strike (which despite Congressional resistance would probably have happened even without approval) and thus preserve some semblance of influence in the Middle East. This is Putin’s gamble – he’s trying to appear more powerful than his country actually is. Sweeping in with a chemical disarmament was a grand way to do this.
Everybody wins, wins, wins (except Syria’s civilians)
Obama gets to avoid a war and disarm some WMDs. Putin gets to show how tough of a president he is, having forced the United States to back down by being reasonable. Assad gets to avoid a bombing that would have hurt. Everyone wins! Oh, wait. Except for the people of Syria, who will still endure a brutal civil war.
Will it work? Well…
People, including me, have kept confusing Bashar for Saddam. In my case, I assumed Assad would never, ever give up his chemical weapons for fear of looking weak, and therefore assumed a strike on Syria was inevitable. But Assad seems to have learned a few lessons from America’s other interventions. True, attacking Syria might give America some nasty blowback down the line, but by then Assad might be dead. That’s hardly a rosy scenario for the man.
So considering how unpredictable this whole thing was, it’s safe to assume that compliance will be equally unpredictable. Assad has shown he knows that America will use his chemical weapons as a casus belli, which might doom him. So he means to deny America that. The only sure way to do this is to actually give up his chemical weapons to both the UN’s and the U.S.’s satisfaction.
The lesson from Saddam was that prevaricating can still get you killed. So if Assad has totally absorbed the lessons there, he’ll give up his weapons and just accept the loss of stature as a WMD-bearing strongman.
But Assad’s lied before. In April 2011, he promised to end Syria’s emergency rule and reform the government. In November 2011, the Arab League sponsored a peace plan, supposedly accepted by rebels and government. Then, Kofi Annan tried the same the following spring. In both cases, regional and international diplomacy failed miserably. Assad wasn’t about to give up power or even share it. He understood such a thing meant being backed into a corner he’d never come out of. Worse, he’d be weakened to Milosevic-like levels. How long could he avoid The Hague?
So will he give up the weapons, considering his strong incentive to do so but also his proven record as a man who will happily lie to foreign powers to buy time? If you feel like predicting, you ought to flip a coin. Unless someone from the Syrian government’s highest echelons are reading this, we’re all going to be left guessing.
But we did learn Russia’s limits
Russia and China both dislike international interventions, especially American ones, because they fear such interventions may one day turn on them in their pursuit of killing dissidents and wiping out would-be ethnic republics. They also like to limit American power whenever they can. But both realize they can’t compete directly with American power. Putin acknowledged as much by going the route of diplomacy.
Had Putin been a Soviet leader, he might well have welcomed the challenge to put Russian arms to battle against American ones. He’d have stepped up military support, as well. But Russian hard power – that is, it’s killing prowess – is limited to its frontiers these days. Russian naval forces couldn’t have competed with American ones. Russian military support couldn’t have stopped American airstrikes (and would have risked humiliating Russia if their best and newest defense systems failed). And Putin was sure as hell not about to commit suicide by attacking America with the one thing Russia still does have in competitive numbers – his nuclear arms.
And we learned what the American people are thinking these days
Americans in general have now come to assume that any military conflict risks pulling the country into a nasty nation-building exercise. This is a good sign, on the one hand, because Americans have now learned, hopefully for the last time, that nation-building is impossible. But on the other, Americans have yet to separate nation-building from tactical strikes. Syria was never going to become a nation-building exercise. It was a strike designed to deter the use of chemical weapons worldwide. Even if America did widen the war to ending Assad’s regime, the sitting president has no appetite for invading a country and trying to do what Bush failed to accomplish.
This means that neoconservatism is essentially dead. It might return, someday, in some hideous form, like a zombie, but thankfully this terrible idea is, at least for now, buried. That’s a great thing for American power. Neoconservatism was a horrific waste of American talent, lives, and resources, because it’s underlying assumption – that every nation would embrace a liberal democratic state if given the opportunity – was fundamentally untrue.
But it’s not so great for America’s worldwide strategic responsibilities
On the other hand, America must still guarantee the global security system, or else we get chaos and everyone suffers. This sudden bout of isolationism doesn’t bode well for either the world or Americans. Temporarily, America’s resolve was not truly tested, but evidence existed that Congress, especially the House, was prepared to vote the authorization down to score political points in the next primary. This goes to the heart of the growing dysfunction of America’s political system, but that’s another discussion.
Obama made it clear he would attack – and had the authority to do so – even if Congress shot him down. But others who might challenge the status quo can take heart from this waver. Worse, they know that even something as dramatic as a chemical attack won’t spur Americans to action, at least for the time being. Expect someone, somewhere, to try to undermine the world system. It needn’t be as dramatic as Iran’s nuclear program. It could be your run-of-the-mill island dispute, an election rigging, or border skirmish. Bad actors on the world stage will give America just a bit less attention than before.
Who knows what we’ll learn next
The game’s afoot; will Assad cooperate? We will learn the hard way. Meanwhile, Syria’s people will suffer, and few outside Syria will be much bothered by that.