The Nobody’s Fool Problem and Escalation of U.S. Aims in Syria

by James Fearon on September 11, 2013 · 2 comments

in Foreign Policy,International Security,War

Just a second.  A couple of days ago, no one was even talking about disposing of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal and Syria signing the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).  The military and the administration were not saying “We are going bomb the chemical weapons depots in an effort to eliminate his stockpiles” because this was seen as unlikely to work and very dangerous to boot—bombing these places might release a lot of poisonous gas.  The point of the planned strike was to try to demonstrate to Assad and other potential bad guys in the future that there could be a serious cost to using chemical weapons.

Flash forward to now, and a major part of the Serious Commentary by the President, the Secretary of State, members of Congress, and members of the commentariat is all about Whether we can trust the Russians and Assad, Whether it’s technically feasible to disassemble and dispose of Syria’s stockpiles, Whether Russia and Assad arestalling” or “playing Obama for time”, and Whether any deal will be sufficiently “verifiable.”

What?  Those questions might make sense if the original aim had been to actually disarm Assad of chemical weapons, but that’s definitely not what the administration or, I think, practically anyone was imagining.  The concern was about his and others use of the weapons.  So on that score the question should not be whether you can implement and verify disarmament in a civil war zone—which doesn’t sound likely, or not in the short run anyway – but rather whether you can verify that he hasn’t undertaken more attacks with chemical weapons.  For some scale of attack, that’s obviously feasible, as the events of August 21 show.  (I was trying to make this point, mixed in with some others, here and am trying again after reading the reactions to the president’s speech and the Russian initiative.)

So what’s with this worry about Russia and Assad tricking Obama by “stalling” and “playing for time”?  Stalling for what purpose?  So he can keep carrying out massive chemical weapons attacks while the Security Council negotiates?  If his regime is saying “we’ll disarm, accept monitors, and sign the CWC,” does it seem likely that he would then continue to carry out massive gas attacks traceable to his military?  If he did this, Obama would be in a better position than ever to get support for punitive strikes.  Basically, this reflex “I’m nobody’s fool” reaction misses the point that the Russian proposal and Assad’s apparent acceptance of the approach is already a probable win on the question of continued use of poison gas by the Assad regime. (It’s not a certain win because nothing is certain.  For instance, maybe Assad doesn’t fully control his own military in this area, or maybe he later finds himself in a situation where he thinks he either uses the weapon or almost surely loses power.  But I have a hard time seeing how this move – even without disarmament – doesn’t amount to a concession that makes it harder for Assad to continue to use chemical weapons at level that is traceable to the regime.)

At least for Obama and Kerry, as opposed to the commentariat, you could say that they have strategic reasons to pivot immediately to questions about verifiability and timing and so on.  Pocket what amounts to an unexpected concession without appearing to notice that there was a concession, and move immediately to seeing what more you can get on the issue of disarmament.  But we should not miss that despite the foreign-policy-zombie-like warnings about not being played by Russia or Assad, in fact there has been a big escalation of U.S. aims here, from the goal of stopping and deterring chemical weapons use to the goal of disarmament.  If seriously pursued, this new goal will open up a whole new set of possible paths to intervention.


cam September 12, 2013 at 5:46 pm

Exactly. Also, how does this make Obama look “weak”? Because he didn’t bomb away unilaterally like Bush or McCain would have? (Congress asked for a say, he gave them one, buying time, and then gop’s in congress call him names for agreeing to their request!) A positive development arose yet the gop pols and mouths simply still can’t escape their middle school pissing games, bash the ‘rival’ no matter what, way of thinking, once again showing their loyalty is only to their own insane brand of blind hate rather than country, even in the face of war and WMD removal, you know, when partisanship is supposed to die down just a little bit!

David Karger September 13, 2013 at 10:13 am

I don’t really see the pivot as a significant increase or decrease in the scale of response, but rather a substitution. Obama’s argument has been that Assad should be punished for use of chemical weapons in order to deter future use of chemical weapons by others. Initially, the proposed punishment was an attack; now instead it is loss of the chemical weapons. Assuming it is implemented, the new punishment seems equally effective for sending a signal to others, as it suggests that anyone who wants to keep their WMDs (as e.g. a deterrent of their own) had better not use them.

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