The US seems unable to take ‘yes’ for an answer

It is quite astonishing how when it comes to diplomacy, the US finds it so hard to take yes for an answer.

Take for example Syria. Whether or not chemical weapons were used and by whom, I think all reasonable people would agree that getting rid of those weapons anywhere is a good thing. And that is what we seem to be moving towards in Syria as a result of the Russian/Syrian plan triggered by John Kerry’s remark. It is going to take some time. After all, the US is far behind schedule on its own promises to reduce its chemical weapons stockpile.

If the Obama administration wants an example of the difficulties involved in destroying chemical weapons, it might reflect upon its own struggles to get rid of cold-war era chemical arsenals stockpiled in tightly controlled storage facilities in Kentucky and Colorado.

The United States promised, but failed, to destroy these stocks by 2012 at the very latest. The most recent forecast from the US is that the process of “neutralising” the chemicals in its Colorado weapons dump will be finished by 2018; the date for Kentucky is 2023. That will be 11 years after the US promised to destroy its chemical weapons stockpiles, and eight years after Russia – the other major possessor of declared chemical weapons – says it will have finished destroying its arsenal.

So even if it takes some time for this to happen in Syria, can’t we just accept that the end result is the important thing irrespective of how we got there? And yet we have this caterwauling in some quarters about how doing so makes the US look weak and president Obama appear subordinate to Russian president Putin. Some are wailing at Obama in frustrated disappointment, stamping their feet and crying “You promised us a war! You promised!”

Cenk Uygur has a roundup of these hysterical reactions.

The defense of Obama supporters that the eventual outcome was due to some deep strategy on his part, an idea encouraged by the Obama administration, is also ludicrous. It was plain that he had decided to go to war against Syria but the unexpected defeat of David Cameron’s push for war in the UK parliament, the massive American opposition that was causing Congress to resist even the efforts of the Israel lobby in the US, and his lack of strong evidence that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons, caused him to switch gears and accept the new reality.

But that should be welcomed as a sign of rationality triumphing over obstinacy. Kevin Drum sums it up well:

Can we please get over the silliness I’m hearing from a few quarters that President Obama had gamed out the whole Syria affair before it even happened? It’s embarrassing. John Kerry made an obviously unscripted comment—which the press twisted into a “gaffe” because, hey, that’s what they do—and Russia seized on it for reasons of its own. Perhaps to gum up the works. Perhaps to get itself out of a jam it was tired of. Who knows? But Obama pretty plainly didn’t plan it and didn’t welcome it.

There’s really no reason to go down this path anyway. If you want to give Obama credit, give him credit for something he deserves: being willing to recognize an opportunity when he sees it. I can guarantee you that George W. Bush wouldn’t have done the same. But Obama was flexible enough to see that he had made mistakes; that congressional approval of air strikes was unlikely; and that the Russian proposal gave him a chance to regroup and try another tack. That’s not normal presidential behavior, and it’s perfectly praiseworthy all on its own.

Through sheer dumb luck and Kerry’s verbosity, we may have averted another unnecessary war. Let’s accept it gratefully and move on. But Kerry may still salvage defeat from the jaws of victory by suggesting that if the decommissioning of the chemical weapons doesn’t go ahead according to his own arbitrary schedule rather that the standard timetable for such things, then the deal may be off. This is a bit rich coming from him given that, as I said above, the US is way behind schedule on the elimination of its own stockpile of such weapons. But there is this ridiculous imperative in US politics that any deal that is arrived at by mutual agreement is somehow a defeat for the US. What must happen is that the other side must be seen as capitulating to US demands.

The Daily Show highlights the absurd reactions to the Russian/Syrian offer to decommission its store of chemical weapons.

(This clip aired on September 1o, 2013. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post.)


  1. sigurd jorsalfar says

    The refusal to accept yes for an answer makes sense if you consider for a second that the real US goal in all of this is regime change. Use of chemical was just the pretext Obama thought he could make use to get the regime change he got in Libya.

    Obama and Kerry have painted themselves into a corner on the issue of regime change and will have to settle for the handing over of chemical weapons. Yes it’s great to rid Syria of those weapons, but since that was hardly the goal here, the entire exercise is being painted as a US defeat by those who recognize that regime change is always the US goal in these situations.

  2. says

    the entire exercise is being painted as a US defeat

    Which is why now the news leaders are falling all over themselves to declare this a victory.

    You know – the idea was that a human disaster has happened, and suddenly that doesn’t matter, it’s just about WMD. Fucking douchebags.

  3. Jeffrey Johnson says

    I totally agree the idea that Obama had all of this planned is way exaggerated. But the media narrative that Putin and Assad suddenly hit upon the idea of offering up the chemical weapons because of Kerry’s improvised remarks is equally silly.

    If there had not been a threat of consequences, i.e. the bombing attacks threatened by the US, Putin and Assad never would have made such an offer. Also, it’s incredibly unlikely that Putin and Assad were not busy calculating possible responses as soon as, in fact even before, the President announced his decision to attack. The idea of a diplomatic response, narrowly tailored to focus on the chemical weapons, just as Obama narrowly focused his retaliation on the chemical weapons, was surely an option Putin and Assad had already considered before Kerry’s remarks. And certainly Obama and Putin must have discussed this a few days earlier during G20 meetings.

    It is probably a very pleasant surprise to the President that Putin and Assad are willing to take a diplomatic approach. Certainly not something he would have expected, but also something that never would have happened if the President had not taken a firm stand on the use of chemical weapons.

    It really does appear that a lot of the media is disappointed by the prospect that there might not be an attack. This is completely disgusting, I couldn’t agree more. Also the right wing is obsessed with the idea that the US isn’t projecting commanding decisive authority and credibility. Just as it is easy for mindless Obama supporters to pretend that this was all a calculated plan as part of an 11 dimensional chess game, it’s equally easy for admirers of muscular decisive authoritative leadership to complain that this process is “indecisive”, “projecting weakness”, or “damaging US credibility”. And paradoxically, it wasn’t that many days ago when critics from the left were accusing the President of staging a military attack for the sole reason of preserving his “credibility”. All of these lines of reasoning are absurd. Nobody knew enough to engage in “decisive” leadership. Every possible approach was fraught with risk and peril, including that of standing by and doing nothing. There is no good reason to “stick to your guns” when new information arrives and better options present themselves. This is just stupid Bush style “leadership”, the kind of fascistic big-daddy authority conservatives are fond of.

    It is good to see that our leader makes decisions carefully and thoughtfully, and that “decisiveness” and “credibility” are not considered ends in themselves. Instead, trying to get the right answer in an impossibly complex and tangled situation is more important.

    The outcome of securing the weapons in the short term (destroying them takes time) is a good one, much better than attacking the Syrian regime. This assumes that such an outcome is possible, and that we aren’t just being toyed with by Putin and Assad. That will become clear soon enough.

    Some may think that the US completely staying out of this would have been best. We could have just stood on the sidelines and watched increased usage of chemicals to exterminate people indiscriminately, man, woman, and child, like cockroaches. I supposed such principled pacifism is appealing to some. I think putting a stop to it was a good idea that seems to be working far better than anyone could have hoped.

    Let’s hope it pans out. There are already reports that Syrian troops are dispersing the stockpiles in hopes that they can’t all be discovered. The idea that Assad will willingly give them all up sounds too good to be true. But if he is deterred from using them, the primary important objective has been acheived.

  4. Nick Gotts says

    the unexpected defeat of David Cameron’s push for war in the UK parliament, the massive American opposition that was causing Congress to resist even the efforts of the Israel lobby in the US, and his lack of strong evidence that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons, caused him [Obama] to switch gears and accept the new reality. – Mano Singham

    Agreed – and when you said “War with Syria is now inevitable”, I said “don’t give up – bombard your Congresspersons…”

    I’m not even going to pretend I don’t like to say: “Told you so”!

  5. colnago80 says

    The notion that the US and Israel favor regime change in Syria is far from accurate. The US and Israel tacitly supported Assad pere and Assad fils for 40 years, for instance saying nothing about the episode in Hama in 1982 in which 20,000+ Syrians were killed by an artillery bombardment, dubbed Hama Rules by New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. This, of course, because the Assads kept quiet about the Israeli occupation of the Golan Highths. Even today, it is not at all clear that the muck da mucks in Washington and Tel Aviv are united about the desirability of removing the Assad kleptocracy from power. It’s the old better the enemy you know then the enemy you know not. Replacing Assad’s government with Al Qaeda affiliated militants is not in Israel’s best interest and the wiser heads in Tel Aviv are aware of it. That’s also why the US has been reluctant to supply arms to the rebels, not being able to tell the good guys from the bad guys. Remember the arms supplied to the anti-Soviet forces in Afghanistan during the Carter and Reagan regimes. How did that work out?

  6. colnago80 says

    Apparently, jorsalfar has a reading comprehension problem. This is a rather recent development. Note the word reluctant in my comment. For most of the time the revolt against Assad fils has been going on, the US has not supplied any significant number of weapons.

  7. Jeffrey Johnson says

    I think what is true here is that the US government, and a large portion of the world, wants Assad gone and a more liberal and inclusive government in place. But nobody wants to send in an external military force to accomplish regime change from without, as was done in Iraq. But if Assad loses, the result could be worse than an Assad victory if the extremist rebels based in the north are the victors. So nobody can honestly say they want regime change or what they want to happen, because nobody can really predict the ramifications of various outcomes.

    There aren’t just two sides in this conflict. There are at least three sides, if not more. It’s fair to say that we would like to see Assad gone, but not if that means an extreme Salafist/Wahhabist fundamentalist government that is aligned with or sympathetic to Al Qaeda. But nobody can control the outcome. Doing nothing could easily lead to the worst possible outcome. A heavy handed intervention would probably look like another Iraq. Providing limited support for the FSA is about all we can do, but they need to win the victory themselves.

  8. thephilosophicalprimate says

    I think your analysis is spot-on, Jeffrey. Moreover, while I think Kerry’s remarks were indeed off-hand, there seems to be every reason to think that the reason he phrased the hypothetical the way he did — emphasizing that Assad would need to show willingness to disarm very promptly “in the next week,” and saying “but that’s not going to happen” — was because that this was a hypothetical solution already under diplomatic discussion, but it was an option that the administration wasn’t keen on taking (because it will, of necessity, much more difficult and drawn out than simply dropping some bombs). Kerry’s public *exposure* of this potential solution may have been more-or-less accidental, but given the specificity and slant of his characterization of the solution, it clearly wasn’t the wholly spontaneous “Oops!” moment many in the media are portraying it as, no matter how hilarious I found Jon Stewart’s Mr. Magoo schtick.

    Is Obama a multi-dimensional chess-master? No. But his administration has responded flexibly and generally intelligently to the shifting ground of an absurdly complex situation. Taking a serious hard line and threatening bombs in response to fairly conclusive proof of chemical weapons use was not a wholly irrational way to respond if the primary aim was to stop the use of chemical weapons (and maybe make it a little easier for rebels to topple Assad in the long run, and make those rebels a tad more open to US diplomacy if they eventually do win). I don’t think it was the *right* or *best* approach, but it was not entirely unwarranted or irrational either. Subsequently backing off and showing willingness to await fuller evidence was a sensible response to how little support actually dropping bombs was getting at home and abroad (esp. the UK). Dumping the whole thing in the laps of Congress was a very smart move to justify that backing off, as it forced a bunch of Republicans to be against military intervention for once, and created both division and distraction in the GOP in advance of the looming budget clash. There were some very smart moves made in response to the shifting terrain, as well as a few less-than-brilliant moments — including, I think, Kerry’s premature public exposure of negotiations that the administration would have been happier keeping behind-the-scenes.

    And why would the administration be happier if those negotiations had remained behind-the-scenes? Because once those negotiations were made public by Putin seizing on Kerry’s remarks and leveraging Assad to publicly agree, the threat of military action loses much of its power as a negotiation tool. That’s why the administration has shown reluctance to take “Yes” for an answer; because too quick and easy acceptance of the “Yes” severely undermines the primary leverage they were using to pressure Syria to actually give up its chemical weapons instead of engaging in delaying tactics and shell games.

    There is no conceivable way to respond flexibly to a changing situation without drawing cries from idiot politicians and pundits about “indecisiveness” or “failure of leadership.” I for one am glad to have an administration that refuses to give up rational flexibility just in order to portray some nebulous macho bullshit about “resolve” and “leadership.”

  9. Nick Gotts says

    Slc1/colnago80 shows once again his determination to prove that he’s not only a genocidal scumbag, but an extremely stupid genocidal scumbag, always ready to dump a pile of his stinking crap on a thread, however irrelevant it is.

    British and American public opinion are closely aligned in wanting to avoid involvement in yet another war, largely due to the bloody and expensive fiascos in Afghanistan and Iraq, the lies they were told about the latter, and perhaps those told about the aims of the bombing of Libya; and British and American governments have had similar difficulties in persuading their respective elected assemblies to approve bombing Syria in the face of this public opposition. It appears that this opposition* just may lead to the negotiated surrender of the Assad regime’s chemical weapons, and perhaps even to possibilities for a negotiated end to the Syrian civil war. Such an outcome would doubtless disappoint slc1/colnago80, who gets a hard-on when he imagines millions suffering and dying in the nuclear attack he wants on Iran, but I think the rest of us participating here, whatever our differences, would be pleased.

    *And, perhaps, the threat of bombing itself, although I’m inclined to think that Assad has responded to Russian pressure rather than that threat; and that that pressure might well have been exerted anyway.

  10. Jeffrey Johnson says

    Tossing all the insults of perfidy and scumminess aside, except to note that surely genocidal goes too far, I was curious about two points here.

    What were the lies about Libya you are referring to? My recollection is that events unfolded more or less as advertised, with the unsurprising exception that initial time estimates were a bit over optimistic. Any one with experience of involvement in any major undertaking understands this difficulty is common and natural.

    Also, I can’t see how opposition to the threatened Syrian bombing has contributed to the solution. As you say, the bombing threat may have motivated Assad, and I think you may underestimate the extent to which Putin also has reason to be nervous about American military involvement, but let’s grant your point that Putin wanted to do this with or without the bombing threat. We know that Obama and Putin started discussing this chemical disarmament of Syria in June of 2012. Maybe Putin was moving too slowly for Obama, but for whatever reasons, Putin is now motivated.

    Given that, how does the opposition to war contribute to Putin’s motivation to act? I can’t see it. Either it is something he can laugh off, or seek to manipulate to achieve some goal, for example by writing op-eds in the NYT, but I can’t see how it could constrain his latitude to act. In fact strong enough opposition to military involvement in Syria could simply embolden Assad with Putin’s approval to end the civil war with massive gas attacks on the northern strongholds of the rebels and their support. Our political drama matters little to them unless it results in action, either the application of force, or the withholding or supply of resources.

  11. colnago80 says

    It was the French who put that moniker on Great Britain for, what was in their opinion, their abandonment in 1940 by the British Government.

  12. colnago80 says

    As I believe I said in a comment on a previous thread on this blog, I read a commentary by someone in a Lebanese newspaper who claimed that the real opposition to a peaceful settlement in Syria is Bashar’s younger brother Maher, who commands the elite troops in the Syrian Army and that Maher is the one calling the shots. Apparently Maher is a chip off the old block.

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