Opinion

The Great Debate

from David Rohde:

Iran’s offer is genuine — and fleeting

President Barack Obama’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Tuesday is not expected to generate much excitement. Battered by his uneven handling of Syria, no bold foreign policy initiatives are likely.

Instead, the undisputed diplomatic rock star of the gathering will be Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani. In his first six weeks in office, the cleric has carried out one of the most aggressive charm offensives in the 34-year history of the Islamic Republic. And the Obama administration responded Thursday, saying the president would be open to having a meeting in New York.

If Obama and Rouhani, who will both address the assembly on Tuesday, simply shake hands in public, it will be the seminal event of the gathering’s first day.

“More than any words he might say, Rouhani's greatest gesture would be shaking hands with President Obama,” Karim Sadjadpour, an expert on Iran at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said in an email Thursday. “It would be one of the most significant geopolitical handshakes in years.”

For both Obama and Rouhani, the stakes are high. The war in Syria is metastasizing into a regional Sunni-Shia conflict. A Middle East conflagration could derail a tepid American economic recovery. And sweeping Western sanctions have devastated Iran's economy. Each leader also faces bitter opposition from domestic conservatives -- ready to pounce if either president blinks in the three-decade cold war between the two nations.

The myth of Republican doves

From reading the political press these days, one could get the impression that the Republican Party, from top to bottom, has radically altered its principles on foreign policy. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), an isolationist, is said to be a serious contender for the 2016 GOP nomination. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Sen. Rick Santorum have recently come out against military intervention in Syria, as have Tea Party heroes Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fl) and Ted Cruz (R-TX).

Last week the Hill reported:

“A decisive vote against President Obama’s plan for strikes in Syria would cement a sharp shift by the Republican Party away from the hawkish military posture it adopted after the terrorist attacks that occurred 12 years ago this week.”

Even some steadfast Republican hawks agree. Rep. Peter King (R-NY) told the Hill, “It’s probably an indication that the party has become less internationalist and more isolationist.”

Blocking Syria’s chemical network

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, testifying recently before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was asked a crucial question: Who has been supplying Syria with its chemical weapons? “Well, the Russians supply them,” Hagel responded. “Others are supplying them with those chemical weapons. They make some themselves.”

The uncertainty of Hagel’s answer reveals a gaping hole in U.S. understanding of how these weapons proliferate, who helps their transfer and where they may turn up next.

Syria’s deadly chemical weapons, which the United Nations report confirms were used to kill at least 1,400 people last month — and which could still spark an American military attack if Syria refuses to turn over the weapons under a U.S.-Russian plan — are made in part from dual-use chemicals. Some of these chemicals are also components of beneficial products, including life-saving medicines, cosmetics and fertilizer.

What is next for Syria’s opposition?

The Syrian regime is crowing victory. The Russians are satisfied at preventing an American military intervention. President Obama is glad to have avoided a Congressional vote against it. Israel is pleased to see Syria’s chemical weapons capability zeroed out, provided the framework agreement reached last week is fully implemented. Even Iran is backing it, while continuing to deny that the regime was responsible for using chemical weapons.

What about the Syrian opposition?

The agreement on chemical weapons leaves them out in the cold. Bashar al-Assad is now vital to implementation of the agreement and will procrastinate implementing it for as long as possible. While destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons capability is supposed to be completed by mid-2014, the logistical challenges involved are colossal. Just accounting for and collecting the 1,000 tons of material will be an enormous task, before getting to deployment of observers and physical destruction, which will likely require shipping the material out of Syria to Russia. Wartime conditions will double the difficulties and prolong the process, even if the regime decides to cooperate fully. That’s unlikely.

Nothing in the agreement changes the battlefield situation. Chemical attacks never made more than a marginal contribution to the regime’s killing capacity. They have killed fewer than 2 percent of the total casualties in Syria’s war. The regime is ratcheting up the violence using conventional weapons. It is raining ordnance on liberated areas with renewed vigor after a several weeks’ lull.

A potential turning point for Syria

In the dizzying debate over U.S. military intervention in Syria, one key point of consensus stands out: Both the Obama administration and Congress recognize that the resolution to Syria’s conflict must come through a negotiated settlement. Key international actors share the same conclusion.

But how do we get there? Russia’s recent proposal to put Syrian chemical weapons under international control could open a viable path to a long-sought diplomatic solution.

This initiative is a long shot. Yet, its potential payoff as a diplomatic breakthrough demands it be taken seriously. Not only would Syrian civilians be spared any unintended consequences of U.S. military intervention, but the Russian proposal’s successful implementation could be a real turning point.

Is this why Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize?

In December 2009 the world was treated to the unexpected news that President Barack Obama had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Among those most surprised was Obama himself. Not many sitting American presidents have won the award. In fact, Obama was only the third.

Now, as Obama stumbles his way through a proposed military strike on the Syrian government, it seems the president has not paid nearly enough attention to the history of world leaders who have won this international honor. The list of Peace Prize winners impresses: Henry Dunant, the founder of the International Red Cross; American social reformer Jane Addams; George Marshall, the architect of peaceful post-World War Two Europe; Martin Luther King Jr.; Burmese freedom fighter Aung San Suu Kyi, and Nelson Mandela.

Theodore Roosevelt was the first U.S. president to win a Nobel Peace Prize. The 26th president earned it the old fashioned way – with effort. Roosevelt’s journey to winning the 1906 prize began with his decision to put some teeth into the Court of Arbitration at The Hague, so that it would begin to serve its purpose of peacefully settling international disputes. The United States and Mexico submitted a dispute to the Court of Arbitration as an example to the world.

Making frenemies with Putin

Anyone who ever worried that Barack Obama might not be Made in the USA should take comfort from his quintessentially American response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to give temporary asylum to Edward Snowden: pouting.

Democratic and Republican presidents alike tend to believe that if other countries don’t act like our “friends,” then they must be our enemies. This attitude creates unrealistic expectations that slow the healing of old injuries, and subverts the potential for a meeting of minds on critical issues — such as Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.

It’s a truism that nations have interests, not friends or enemies. This may sound cynical, but interests act as lighthouses on the rocky shores of foreign policy. In a storm, they help governments distinguish between what they must do to survive, and what they might wish to do if seas were calm.

Is the intelligence on Syria different this time?

The long shadow of the faulty, hyped intelligence in the run-up to the war in Iraq has posed a huge barrier to President Barack Obama’s efforts to win public and congressional support for a limited missile strike against Syria.

Remember the “mushroom cloud?” Both President George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice, his national security adviser, used that terrifying phrase, invoking images of a nuclear holocaust, to push America along the road to war.

The CIA issued a now-infamous National Intelligence Estimate in October 2002 that said Iraq “is reconstituting” its nuclear weapons program and that Saddam Hussein had supplies of sarin, VX and other lethal chemical weapons, as well as biological weapons, “including anthrax” and perhaps even “smallpox.”

from David Rohde:

For Obama, a contradiction too many

President Barack Obama will have to deliver one of the finest speeches of his presidency next Tuesday if he hopes to win Congressional support for a strike against Syria. Out of nowhere, the Syria vote has emerged as one of the defining moments of Obama’s second term.

With three years remaining in office, the vote will either revive his presidency or leave Obama severely weakened at home and abroad.

There are legitimate criticisms of Obama's initial response to the Syrian government’s barbaric August 21st gas attack outside Damascus. The president should have demanded that Congress be called back from recess immediately. He should also have immediately made a far more personal and passionate case for strikes.

The politics of Syria

Congressional Democrats are in a bind. If they vote to authorize a military strike on Syria, they could be putting the country on a slippery slope to war. But if they vote no, they will deliver a crushing defeat to their president.

What President Barack Obama did was call their bluff. Last week, more than 50 House Democrats signed a letter urging the president to “seek an affirmative decision of Congress” before committing to any military engagement. That was the Democrats’ way of going on record to express reservations about what Obama sounded like he was going to do anyway. Then, lo and behold, the president decided to do exactly what they asked. Now it’s their decision.

Anti-war sentiment is a powerful force on the left. It was nurtured by bitter experiences in Vietnam and Iraq. Obama himself comes out of that tradition. He is trying to keep faith with it by arguing, as he did at a meeting with congressional leaders, that his attack plan is “proportional, it is limited, it does not involve boots on the ground.” He added, “This is not Iraq, and this is not Afghanistan.” Secretary of State John Kerry tried to change the metaphor when he called it “a Munich moment.” Meaning, a “no” vote would be a vote to appease a dictator.

  •