The diplomatic and psychological thriller of the current announced plan by U.S. President Barack Obama to attack Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons against its own people has now been dramatically reshaped by the Russian proposal for Syria to store its chemical weapons in Russian hands, destroy them and join the international Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. This has elicited positive Syrian and American responses, from which we might draw some lessons so far. First, the reflexive American resort to threats and military violence as the preferred response to the problem in Syria was widely rejected around the world and inside the United States itself. The many convincing arguments against unilateral American militarism revolved around the two central points of legitimacy and efficacy: The U.S. is not mandated politically, morally or legally to use its might to enforce the global ban on chemical weapons use; and even if it does strike militarily the rich history of such actions elsewhere suggests that this kind of “deterrent” action does not deter. Many other leaders have not been deterred by similar strikes in recent decades. Efficacy and legitimacy matter in the realm of international relations.
Second, the relationship between aims and means also matters. The entire world agrees with the American argument that whoever used chemical weapons in Syria must be punished and deterred from ever doing so again. The means of doing this comprise the points of disagreement, and these again touch on whether the U.S. alone should decide what to do and whether military force is the best first option. Unanimous agreement on the aims of prohibiting the use of chemical weapons opens many opportunities to craft a political resolution of the conflict.
Third, the U.S. government argument in recent weeks that it had exhausted all peaceful means of responding to the Syrian government’s alleged responsibility for using chemical weapons is a big fat lie, and an insult to the intelligence of the world. Numerous formal mechanisms for addressing breaches of international norms such as the chemical weapons ban are available for anyone who wishes to seek a peaceful resolution of the problem at hand, from U.N. agencies and the enforcement mechanisms of international conventions and treaties on chemical weapons use or war crimes, to assorted judicial forums like the International Criminal Court and simple discussions with friends and foes alike.
Fourth, talking to your foes is more useful than threatening and mocking them. The possible breakthrough of the Russian proposal emanated from two sets of spoken words – John Kerry’s initial rhetorical suggestion that Syria hand over its chemical weapons to international controls, followed by the meeting of the Russian and Syrian foreign ministers that generated the formal proposal.
Talking earnestly in a context of shared aims and values will almost always identify that middle ground where a workable, legitimate political resolution can be crafted. The many conflicts playing themselves out in Syria these days essentially mean that four main actors shape the fighting today, and therefore can resolve it politically: Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States. The governments of these four countries must meet and negotiate regularly with the same diligence that they now apply in sending arms to fighters on both sides in Syria.
Fifth, we may be witnessing a historic transition in the United States in which ordinary citizens start to debate their country’s place and role in the world in a sensible, rational and, above all, humble manner. I have been awed by the common sense and moral decency of so many American officials and citizens who have been asking the Obama administration the most basic and pertinent questions about what the U.S. aims to achieve with limited military strikes against Syria, what would be the consequences of such a move, why the U.S. should lead this the effort and other such crucial questions.
Sixth, enforcing global norms against chemical weapons use is an important collective international responsibility, which is very different from asserting the “credibility” of a single power such as the U.S. The world supports legitimate action to achieve the former and rejects unilateral militarism to assert the latter. If the American president has problems with his own sense of American “credibility,” he would do better to seek emotional counseling to reduce his stress levels, rather than pursue the thuggish, probably criminal, route of military attacks.
Seventh, the U.S. and the world should now work seriously to apply the Russian proposal in a manner that draws on these lessons. This means the U.S. should not unilaterally lay down the law for how to transfer Syria’s chemical weapons and threaten to attack if Damascus and Moscow do not behave as Washington tells them to behave.
The test for success, peace and stability will derive from whether diplomatic or other collective action to deal with a perceived threat is conducted according to the crucial yardsticks of both efficacy and legitimacy.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.