Why Obama should be thrilled about the Russian chemical weapons deal.
- By Edward LuttwakEdward Luttwak is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the author of Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace.
Just when it seemed that President Obama’s good intentions had trapped him in the ultimate no-win predicament, salvation has come to him — from Moscow of all places. Despite his own over-active appointees — including the famously interventionist ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power, and a vehement Secretary of State John Kerry — Obama should promptly accept the Russian proposal.
The no-win predicament is Obama’s request for congressional authorization for the bombardment of Syria. If Congress votes no — as Obama himself would almost certainly vote were he still a senator — the administration’s authority would be damaged greatly. If Congress votes yes, Obama would be forced to launch the military attack on Syria that he has wisely resisted for more than two years, because of fully justified fears that Assad’s enemies are potentially even more dangerous than the regime itself.
The Russian offer to identify, locate, and remove of all chemical weapons from Syria under international (read U.S.-Russian) supervision is a far better remedy than bombardment could ever be. True, the record of U.N. and other international inspectors hardly inspires confidence — they might miss quite a few chemical warheads and bombs if they are hidden well enough. But that’s no less true of any attempt to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons by bombing depots and bases — some are bound to escape detection and destruction, not to mention the potential for a dangerous dispersal of chemical agents in a strike.
Perhaps I am missing something, but it seems that every possible argument for the bombing of Syria is totally overturned by the Russian offer.
If the purpose is to punish the Assad regime in order to reaffirm the longstanding global prohibition of chemical warfare, it can be achieved much more powerfully by the wholesale chemical disarmament the Russians are proposing, rather than by an attack that could only destroy some of the weapons
If the purpose is to intimidate Iran into giving up its more dangerous nuclear activities, the precedent of identification and removal by Americans and Russians working jointly must be far more intimidating to Iran’s ayatollahs than the threat of a unilateral U.S. air bombardment that has long been very improbable — and which has now lost all credibility given the very public hesitation to attack Syria, a state much weaker, and much less able to retaliate in the Persian Gulf or elsewhere. By contrast, Tehran’s greatest fear is American and Russian cooperation. Especially now that economic sanctions have actually been effective, Iranian leaders might finally accept real limits on their nuclear activities once they see Americans and Russians really cooperating effectively in Syria
By contrast, the political and diplomatic reasons not to bomb Assad are greatly reinforced by the Russian offer. It was already costly to slap Putin in the face by attacking Russia’s only ally — it can retaliate by supporting Iran at the UN ( where it has voted against Iran in the past) and with weapon deliveries — but would be doubly so now that the Russians themselves have offered a better alternative. It was already costly for Obama politically to start another war — it would demoralize his most fervent supporters on the left — and much more so now that the Russian offer makes the bombing simply unnecessary.
True, the Assad regime will continue to wage war much as before — even without the chemical weapons it has scarcely needed. Yes, the Syrian civil war will now continue its merciless grind of attrition. And yes, a bombing campaign could perhaps have weakened the Assad regime sufficiently to allow the rebels to win. But that is precisely the outcome that President Obama did not want, even before the dangerous fanaticism of many of the rebels was exposed to the world by their own videos, and by the testimony of Westerners they have captured and abused. Having tripped up on his own no-chemical weapon red line, Obama can revert to his wise policy of opposing Assad verbally while giving minimal support to the rebels in practice — by accepting the Russian offer. With that, the destroyers can withdraw from the Eastern Mediterranean, the fighter-bombers stand down, and the administration can refocus on America and its acute economic problems — instead of embarking on another military adventure that offers only costs, risks, and the mathematical certainty that the United States will be blamed by all sides in the aftermath.