I’ve been watching the events unfolding with Syria, the US, Russia, the UK, etc. etc. etc. like most people with interest, concern, and a bit of a dubious ‘what the hell?’ kind of initial reaction…. that is up until the moment that President Obama sent the request for action to a Congress that has held absolutely EVERYTHING up for the last 4+ years. At that point, the situation was clarified. Yet, I’m befuddled as to how so many people in the US — including folks that usually understand this kind of thing — still don’t get what all of this is about.
For example, a friend of mine (like many commentators) saw President Obama’s message last night and reacts like this:
So, the POTUS translation is: “Alright, fine, we’ll play with the Russians, but I don’t buy that it’s going to work, so heads up, we’re probably going to end up striking anyway. It’ll probably cause a big mess, and I dunno what we’re going to do with that, but it is what it is.” Did I miss anything?
In short… the answer is yes, my friend and many others are missing a whole lot.
The President’s speech was designed to hold Russia’s feet to the fire, maintain pressure on Assad, and keep pushing forward a diplomatic and non-military resolution to the problem. It’s simple leveraging in negotiations. So, let’s look at this from both historic and persuasive perspectives….
If you study the old days of diplomacy this is how the ‘leveraging’ game is played. Without the credible threat of force (and ‘credible threat’ being the operative word), there’s very little to leverage to make sure that countries/ leaders follow through on their word. Of course it’s chest beating and posturing, but it’s an important message to communicate. Hell, in the old days (from the Greeks on through the 17th’ish century), the troops would often be paraded out and the negotiation took place on the battlefield and then everyone went home.
It’s a much more effective strategy to prevent war than the Teddy Roosevelt’s approach of speaking softly but carrying a big stick… instead it’s more of a speak loudly and have a really big ass stick and the perceived reluctant willingness to use it.
So, yes, many people are missing the point of the President’s speech last night as well as his interview the night before that. It’s a question of objective… if the objective is to actually go to war, you just start the strikes once there’s evidence of naughtiness because… well… you can. If, however, the objective is to minimize the likelihood of armed conflict while simultaneously preventing future harm (i.e., the weapons were already used and we can never likely “prove” it was Assad that ordered it), then you come out with a strong statement but then turn it over to Congress under the pretense of the rule of law, you have your chief foreign diplomat beating the war drum, and then you go to a conference of foreign leaders and create a situation where the ally of the enemy is pushed into stepping up in order to avoid an even greater potential international conflict. In so doing, the naughty boy realizes he’s shit out of luck and pays lip service to compliance, but absent the threat of force and follow through, you risk losing the long game. The president has already demonstrated he’s willing to use military force when he views it as necessary (e.g., controversial drone strikes, Libya, Somali pirates, oh yeah and Bin Laden), so the threat has to be viewed as credible.
But the communication of a cautious optimism with the underlying threat still there pushes Putin/Russia to pressure Syria, pressures Syria to comply, and falls in line with how the diplomacy of conflict prevention has been done for thousands of years. Oh yeah, and remember the strategy works uniquely because Russia is the agent of action — that is, without Russia exerting its “friendly” pressure on Syria to act, this probably doesn’t work… Assad has no way to maintain face and international credibility (in his own world). Yet, with the pressure coming from Russia, not only does Russia get the opportunity to look like the peace broker but it’s done in a way that gives Syria a reasonable way to comply with international demands AND maintain their own efficacy. Wait, now why did Obama send the military strike action to Congress again ahead of the G20 Summit?
The strategy is sound, interesting, and with a history of willingness to use airstrikes creates just enough fear to motivate behavioral change but not so much that the target of the message goes into a fear control process (see EPPM from Kim Witte) where Assad doubles down because there’s no “winning” scenario for him. So bottom line, from both history of conflict AND a fear-based persuasion perspectives, Obama’s strategy and message are based in sense with a clear objective of AVOIDING bombing. For now, the strategy is working… with a rational actor (i.e., Assad — he’s not stupid nor does he want to be deposed… he’s too familiar with the West and likes the material trappings of it) interested in maintaining his own power, the strategy should work.
If that was the design from the start, then Obama’s a fucking awesome game player in international diplomacy… if it’s just luck that it’s worked out this way, then groovy… I’m glad that luck happens and it’s clear that he’s rolling with this strategy now.
In the mean time people…seriously… put the critical thinking caps on and try to see a big picture (i.e., this is why understanding history and actually knowing stuff is really useful… it keeps Chicken Little from thinking the sky is falling).