Two key dominos of diplomacy

International politics is even more complicated to understand and difficult to predict than domestic politics, and things can sometimes take a surprising turn. But although hard to foresee, one can sometimes look back and see significant evens that set in motion a chain of occurrences.

In the case of Syria, it was less than a month ago when president Obama’s belligerent ‘red line’ comment seemed to be drawing the US into bombing Syria, risking increased involvement in its terrible civil war on the side of the anti-Assad forces, some of whom are Islamic militants who are actually allied with al Qaeda and thus supposedly enemies of the US. Even worse, the proposed US action seemed to be setting the stage for future war with Iran. The only groups that thought this was a good thing were the perpetual warmongers: the neoconservatives, the liberal war hawks, Israel and its US lobby, and the crazy Christian evangelicals eagerly awaiting Armageddon.

But something strange happened and now not only has a deal been reached that has a good chance of allowing for the peaceful removal of chemical weapons from Syria (at least on the part of its government) but there has been somewhat of a rapprochement between the US and Iran, with president Obama and the Iranian president exchanging seemingly cordial letters and the Syrian foreign minister having an extended meeting with US secretary of State John Kerry on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. And just yesterday we are informed that Obama and president Rouhani spoke directly to each other by phone. Can it be long before they become Facebook friends?

So what happened? How did peace moves suddenly break out?

Looking back, some of the credit should be given to the leader of Britain’s Labour Party Ed Miliband. I don’t know much about his politics. Ever since the despicable Tony Blair took the party that once represented the working class into its neoliberal ‘New Labour’ form, it has increasingly become pro-war, pro-oligarchy, and subservient to the US. So when Conservative British prime minister David Cameron called for a parliamentary vote to authorize an attack on Syria, I expected the Labour party, apart from its more militant backbenchers like the great Glenda Jackson, to acquiesce, while mouthing the usual hypocritical caveats.

But the decision of Miliband to oppose the war resolution and its resultant surprising defeat in parliament took the wind out of the sails of the warships. Deprived of his usually compliant UK ally, Obama was forced to seek support for his plans in the US Congress, just like the French president felt obliged to throw the issue to his parliament too. But emboldened by the British parliament’s move, the US Congress also seemed to be balking at allowing Obama to start yet another war and the stage seemed set for an embarrassing defeat for him.

Then steps in the other unlikely person who should also get credit for shifting the drift from war to peace, and that was the anonymous reporter who asked John Kerry in London what it would take for the US to not bomb Syria. Kerry’s dismissive and sarcastic reply to her was then seized upon by Russia and Syria as if it were a genuine offer that they were willing to work with, and Obama must have realized that it provided a good escape hatch to get out from the corner he had painted himself into.

Of course, there will be those who are dismayed that their plans for further glorious wars are becoming unraveled and we can expect them to try to drive new wedges between the US, Russia, Iran, and Syria.

But the drive for war with Syria has definitely run out of momentum and I cannot see it being easily revved up again. When people see that diplomacy can get results, however imperfect, their enthusiasm for war disappears.


  1. Curt Cameron says

    I feel petty pointing this out on such a thoughtful post, but the plural of “domino” is “dominoes” with an “e.”

    The pizza chain is “Domino’s” but that’s possessive, not plural.

  2. mnb0 says

    “The only groups that thought this was a good thing were the perpetual warmongers: ….. Israel …..”
    Not Israel actually.

    The reason is simple: while Israel definitely dislikes Assad the country is afraid that his successor might be worse. Israel knows how to deal with Assad, but can’t be sure what will happen if he is dethroned.
    Obama knew of course too.

    “I expected …”
    I could have told you that this expectation was doubtful. Blair was only uncontroversial as long as he won elections. Now he is retired and Labour doesn’t win anymore the original left guys are back. It’s simple: Blair’s political strategy doesn’t work for his successors. Many left-wing parties in western Europe suffer from similar problems. This time The Netherlands was one of the first. When Wim Kok turned right the PvdA became the biggest party. Twenty years later the party has lost 40% of its votes or more.
    The huge challenge for European left has been since 1989 to develop an updated alternative for neo-liberalism. It largely has failed. Embracing neo-liberalism predictably only worked temporarily due to the charisme of leaders like Kok, Schroeder and Blair.

    “Obama must have realized that it provided a good escape hatch”
    Which shows Obama is a far better political strategist than his predecessor. In fact when he called for the support of the Congress I already strongly suspected that he was playing a (card) game of Old Maid, as we Dutch say: not getting blamed whether he would go to war or not.
    Frankly I prefer cynical Macchiavellism like this to stupid principles a la Bush.

    This in addition; your analysis is largely correct. I think you are wrong on president Hollande (of France) – when it comes to interventions French politics always has been cynical Macchiavellism and Hollande never had a reason to intervene in Syria – but that doesn’t affect your conclusion.

  3. colnago80 says

    Re mnb0

    The reason is simple: while Israel definitely dislikes Assad the country is afraid that his successor might be worse. Israel knows how to deal with Assad, but can’t be sure what will happen if he is dethroned.

    This is entirely correct and accurate. The fact is that the US and Israel tacitly supported the Assads, pere and fils for 40 years because he kept things quiet on the Golan Highths. The proof of that is that neither of them said boo in 1982 during the artillery attack on the Syrian City of Hama which killed 20,000+ people over the course of several days. In the current situation, the Government of Israel had little to say prior to the past 6 months as it actually preferred Assad fils as the devil they knew, rather then the opposition, the devil they knew not. Now, of course, his crimes have become too heinous to ignore and even the most cynical observers in Israel agree that, eventually, Assad must go.

    Way back near the beginning of the civil war in Syria, elements of the FSA wanted Israel to station elements of the IDF on the Golan Highths cease fire line to force Assad to withdraw some of his forces from elsewhere in the country to confront them, a suggestion made more recently by Noam Chomsky. Of course, the dangers of such a policy are obvious as any damn fool incident in the no-man’s land between the forces could start a Middle East war between Syria and Israel.

  4. left0ver1under says

    Unsurprisingly, and to the great disappointment of wall street, diplomacy is working on Syria. How can taxpayer dollars be handed to war profiteers if there’s no war?

    Intentionally or not, rightwing scumbag Michael Ledeen summed up US foreign policy thus:

    “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.”

    And then people wonder why every ten years someone tries to blow up the US and show Americans that they mean business.

  5. Jeffrey Johnson says

    Your story is one narrative that can be constructed from observed events. Some parts of it may even be true. But elements of it can be called into question. This story is most certainly not complete.

    Some things not mentioned:

    The United States government for years has been resisting pressure from Israel and from it’s own neocons and assorted hawks to bomb Iran, or to give Israel a green-light to bomb Iran themselves.

    The US has been organizing and enforcing aggressive economic sanctions against Iran in an attempt to force them to fully comply with the terms of the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty. In the last 5 years these have been strengthened and expanded to include broader international support. The Iranian economy has seen terrible inflation and a halving in the value of its currency for international exchange.

    Perhaps encouraged by the effects of these sanctions, Iranians elected a moderate president, one with direct experience in nuclear arms negotiations, and one who pledged to take a new approach to resolving the international conflict over Iran’s program to develop nuclear weapons, and to fundamentally change Iran’s relations with the international community. Rouhani was not the preferred candidate of the clerics, and he was not the top pick of the reformists of the Green movement, but he was a moderate compromise between these extremes. The Supreme Leader allowed the election results to stand.

    The idea of Syria giving up its chemical weapons didn’t just arise out of nowhere. Obama had already pressed Putin on the subject way back in June of 2012. This was a concern since the escalation of the Syrian civil war from an Arab Spring protest to full on warfare, i.e. for at least two years.

    The President never said that if Syria used chemical weapons, that would irretrievably and automatically trigger a military attack on the Syrian government. He said, in the context of explaining why the US was not intervening, that if Syria used chemical weapons that would be a redline that would change his calculus. Redline in this context, as the President clarified, could not correctly be interpreted in the same way Netanyahu had applied the term to Iran. It simply meant a threshold that would cause him to reevaluate things. It is unfortunate that the President used the term “red line”, because people jumped on that and made it mean what they wanted it to mean. He should have just said “threshold”. To ignore his clarifications and to childishly insist “you said red line, no take backs”, is silly. A lot in the media were silly in this way, for various reasons (some wishing to create momentum for an attack, some wishing to accuse the President of being a war monger). I don’t think it’s accurate to call it, given the entire context, a belligerent remark. It was a sensible warning to Assad to avoid using chemical weapons.

    It’s highly doubtful, though apparently it made good press, that John Kerry’s remark about Syria giving up its weapons was the cause of Putin’s offer. It’s also doubtful that Kerry randomly made that up. It was in the context of his involvement in discussions about Syria’s chemical weapons for more than a year. Since the USG had tried and failed at this diplomatic approach, prior to the large scale use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, when the weapons were finally used, it appeared the diplomatic angle was dead, and that force would be necessary to deter Assad.

    Putin and Assad had probably been counting on the fact that Obama would not do this, that the US would not risk any military involvement at all because there really was no side the US could take. Putin and Assad knew full well that giving up the weapons would meet the US demands. They could either assume Obama was bluffing, or they could forestall attacks by offering the diplomacy. It’s extremely doubtful Putin was sitting around with no clue as to what he could do, and then suddenly John Kerry made his remark and Putin said “Aha, why didn’t I think of that?” No, I’m sure it couldn’t have happened that way. Putin was probably already planning to make that offer when Kerry made his remark. He may have felt Kerry’s remark provided a good opportunity to make a PR score on something he already was planning or contemplating.

    I also doubt that the British Parliament had a great deal of impact on Obama’s plans. It was perhaps a disappointment to not have more support, but a minor one. But the American public’s opinion carried much more sway in leading the President to decide that consulting with Congress was politically advisable. He made sure to mention that he would reserve the right to attack Syria regardless of Congress’ opinion, a message Putin and Assad most certainly received loud and clear.

    The story isn’t that a belligerent US government was spoiling for war, any war, and Syria seemed a likely target. It isn’t that the British Parliament heroically forestalled the attack, or that Vladimir Putin schooled the bloodthirsty US Government with an idea that had never occurred to them. And it isn’t that Rouhani just appeared out of nowhere and was struck by a brand new idea of peacemaking because he was inspired by a ray of sunshine from Putin and British MPs suddenly bursting through the clouds of impending war. These opportunities of diplomacy had always been open to Syria and Iran, and events finally became dangerous enough for Putin and Assad, and the Iranian economy that their calculus changed and they decided to take them up.

    The US approach from the start has consistently been to stay out of the conflict other than to aid refugees and support all UN attempts to get Assad and the rebels to the negotiating table in Geneva. But the US has also been paying attention to the threat of Syrian chemical weapons use from the beginning, and tried to make diplomatic overtures via Putin, which must have been rejected or delayed by Putin. Assad was warned that chemical weapons attacks would not be tolerated. When Assad used them on a large scale, he did cross a line and the President made a decision to make good on his warnings. This was something Putin and Assad did not want to happen. They decided to offer up the weapons because they didn’t want the US attacks to proceed.

    Those are the events that were decided upon by the actual interests of the countries involved and the calculations of military and intelligence experts. What the British Parliament did, what John Kerry said, and the stories made up in the US media were all sideshow to the events that would have occurred anyway.

  6. Nick Gotts says

    Hilarious how determined you are to hammer everything into your “Obama is always right” narrative. It takes no account of most of the key points in the events of the last month.

    1) Why was the UK Parliament recalled? The debate was held on Thursday 27th August, Parliament had been due to return on the following Monday. As some of the Labour MPs asked during the debate, why the rush? The only plausible explanation is that the intention was to launch an attack within days.
    2) Neither Obama, nor Hollande, had given any indication that they intended to ask their respective elected assemblies’ opinion prior to the unexpected defeat of Cameron’s motion (which happened through an alliance between Labour and a group of MPs on the Tory right who hate Cameron and didn’t want to give him the chance to wrap himself in the union Jack, as we say here). Why the sudden change of mind if not as a result of the UK Parliamentary vote? That was the factor that changed, not American public opinion.
    3) It became clear that Obama was not going to get a majority in the House, and might not have got one in the Senate. Going ahead with an attack after asking and getting a “No” would have been a huge political risk (“Why ask us if you were going to ignore the answer?”), especially since such an attack would, inevitably, have benefited the Al Qaeda aligned jihadis who now dominate the rebel movement.
    4) If Kerry had intended to make a serious offer, he would not have phrased it as he did, since it was plainly impossible for Syria to hand over all its chemical weapons within a week.
    5) Contrary to your “there really was no side the US could take”, the USA has been sending small arms to the rebels (which is not no military involvement at all). Also, it has made no attempt to restrain Saudi Arabia and Qatar sending much more significant funding and arms supplies. Qatar, in particular, has been aiding the Islamist factions.
    6) Moreover, it has joined in the demands for Assad to concede his own deposition in advance, so it is absurd to claim that “These opportunities of diplomacy had always been open to Syria…”
    7) “…and Iran”. Iran has in fact made numerous attempts over the period since 1979 to achieve a rapprochement with the USA. Until now, these have always been rebuffed. On this see Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, both Iran experts, and former senior Middle East policy advisers at the State Department under both Clinton and Bush II. Until now, Obama has given no indication that he was willing to respond to such attempts.
    8) Notice that the UNSC resolution passed unanimously is largely in line with Russian wishes: it does not attribute blame for the chemical weapons attack, and does not include the automatic use of force if Syria fails to comply.

    Credit is certainly due to Obama for recognizing the opportunity to get out of the hole he’d dug for himself, and to Putin for offering him a hand out (and, I surmise, telling Assad he had to agree or lose Russian diplomatic protection at the UN).

  7. Frank says

    OED has (essentially) the same definition as the first sense of the word (attested to the early eighteenth century). I also had never heard it used that way. Agree with Mano: language changes over time are fascinating.

  8. Jeffrey Johnson says

    1-3: I just don’t see how the British Parliament’s decision could matter. If your hypothesis were correct, then if the British Parliament had approved the attacks, the President of the US would have ignored US public opinion and not consulted Congress. I don’t buy that. Also, if US public opinion didn’t matter to the President, the logical response to the British Parliament’s rejection would have been to not consult Congress. It’s not plausible that British Parliament has any more than the most peripheral influence on the decisions of the President. This whole idea that the British Parliament dictated the outcome is extremely far fetched.

    4: I didn’t say Kerry was making a serious offer. He was stating something with resignation and frustration based on experience. He did not expect that Syria would just give up the weapons because the US had already proposed that and been refused, and the US had warned Assad not to use chemical weapons, but he had used them any way. So he spoke those words as if it were a pie in the sky dream because of the evidence he had of Assad’s and Putin’s actions over the last two years.

    5: there was no side the US could take in any substantial way. The small arms to the FSA were not intended to produce a decisive outcome. They were at best intended to keep Assad from winning. The US strategy all along was to lobby for a stalemate that would force the parties to come to the negotiating table in Geneva, hopefully in a situation where Assad was weakened but not utterly defeated. The most optimistic hopes were that a transition to a post-Assad Syrian government could be negotiated without a complete collapse of the government and a power vacuum enabling Salafist militants to seize control.

    6: The diplomacy open to Syria I was referring to was the option to both refrain from using chemical weapons, and the option to surrender them to international monitors to prevent them from possibly falling into the hands of terrorists. That had been discussed in 2012. Assad had been warned not to use them. Assad decided to test the US resolve by first using small amounts of chemicals, and finally making a larger attack on Aug. 21. When he did that he crossed a line.

    7: Obama sent letters to the Supreme Ayatollah twice in 2009 trying to open up diplomatic channels, but was rebuffed. Then he gradually tightened sanctions. The offer for Iran to comply fully with the NPT was always open. It now seems that the lever of economic sanctions has encouraged them to take that path.

    8: I don’t see any relevance of this to what I argued. My point was that Putin was not somehow inspired to engage in a negotiation to broker the surrender of the chemical weapons because of anything Kerry said. That discussion had already been on the table for over a year. Putin and Assad ignored it because they could. It was the threat of a US attack that scared Putin and Assad into coming to the table. What other possible motive could they have for giving up those weapons? And who could seriously imagine that neither Obama nor Putin had ever had the idea of a surrender of those weapons, and that a random remark from Kerry just coincidentally put the idea into Putin’s mind? As if Putin would have been willing to do that all along, but just didn’t think of it, or didn’t think it was important? The whole suggestion is absurdly implausible when you think about it realistically. Clearly something changed that motivated Putin to do something he hadn’t been motivated to do last year. That change was the credible threat of a US attack being imminent.

  9. Jeffrey Johnson says

    Language is probably the greatest technology humans have ever discovered. It’s fascinating to think that Sanskrit and the languages derived from it, Greek, Latin, the Romance languages, the Germanic languages including English, all evolved from a common Indo-European proto-language.

    One of the most entertaining books on language I’ve read is “The Power of Babel” by John McWhorter. He discusses the theory that all human languages today derive from what was once a single language, and that the 5 to 6000 languages on earth today may someday converge on a single human language again. Along the way he covers lots of interesting history of language, and what can be inferred from comparing linguistic structures of languages from around the world. Definitely a good read for anyone fascinated by language.

  10. says

    As it happens, I’ve just been re-reading McWhorter’s book recently, and I don’t think he argues anywhere that we are going to converge on one language, rather, that at the rate things are going, we’re going to converge on a relatively small number of big nation-state languages compared to the diversity we currently have, unless we make major efforts to preserve and record minority languages and set up the sort of social conditions where they will continue to be taught natively to children.

    [This was meant in response to Jeffrey Johnson, but there were no ‘reply’ levels left]

  11. Jeffrey Johnson says

    @David Hart,
    It could be that he never directly proposes the possibility of a single future language, but he definitely discusses the possibility that language evolved only once, and that all languages today stem from one original language. It could be true that the first language was little more than very simple vocalizations, consisting of less than a hundred “words”, with little grammar. That may have spread wide among humans before it independently flowered into many variations of what we might consider full human language.

    It may just have been my takeaway to imagine a single future language. I read it several years back, soon after its release. He estimates languages are dying out at a rate of about a thousand per century, and definitely he argues that failing to preserve that rich linguistic diversity is a great loss. But we may end up preserving most languages in books and videos, not with living native speakers. Certainly there are many working against this trend. To what extent they will succeed is anybody’s guess.

    The trend I see, which is nothing more than intuition aided by an extended period of international travel to around 50 countries back in the nineties, is toward a more uniform global culture, and technologies of high speed travel and communication are a big part of that. The scenario you describe, a small number of widely spoken languages, would be a logical stopping point on the way to a global language, if it ever happens. Maybe everyone will share a global language as their second language. This pattern exists in Africa, where many countries have 20 to 30 languages, but everyone who goes to school learns English, French, or Arabic for a common national language. Many people across Mali or Nigeria or Kenya can’t communicate in their tribal languages, languages spoken in their homes, but they can communicate in French or English. But then once that situation arises, what may happen could be similar to what happens to third and fourth generation immigrants to the US, where they know some of their ancestral language, maybe understand more than they can speak, or maybe have completely lost that language and rely entirely on English. I’m not saying English will be the global language. A global language might arise after thousands of years, evolved from several major languages of the present, by which time it will be a language nobody on earth today can understand.

    My personal belief is that eventually the distinctions that divide humans, those of race, nation, religion, and culture will soften and blur, dissolved by the acid of mutual interests and economic interdependence, reinforced by technology. We’ve already gone a long way in that direction just during my 55 year lifetime. Already today there are certain baselines of human culture that exist in any city of the world, whether you’re in Asia, Africa, Europe, or the Americas. I’m assuming we survive tens of thousands of years more without any civilization destroying apocalypse. That assumption could be wrong, but I hope not. I tend to be an optimist about the future of humanity.

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