The United States ended up badly isolated at the G20 summit in St. Petersburg on the Syrian question. The best American claim is that the gathering was split down the middle – «fifty – fifty» but the cold reality is that there were no takers among the world leaders for the US’ proposed military operations against Syria other than Turkey, Canada, Saudi Arabia and France.
Where does this leave President Barack Obama in the fateful days or weeks ahead?
Obama’s press conference at the G20 on Friday evening offers some signposts. Obama spoke in a somber tone throughout, which conspicuously lacked passionate affirmations or assertive thought processes that he is wont to as a gifted politician and intellectual. Having said that, Obama stuck to his guns, as it were, hanging on to his trodden path on the issues involved. But then, he wasn’t without introspection, either, groping for ideas.
The tone toward Russia was notably conciliatory, which reflected the acute awareness that on the Syrian question, it is Moscow that is in a convincing leadership role rather than Washington… Obama was, conceivably, aware of the press conference of Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier on Friday afternoon where the Russian leader asserted something unheard of in modern diplomatic history since the Bolshevik Revolution a century ago by saying, «according to public opinion surveys, the overwhelming majority of their [western] populations are on our [Russian] side and are against waging hostilities».
Indeed, Putin made it clear that Russia wouldn’t be idly watching an aggression against Syria – «Will we [Russia] be helping Syria? Yes we will. We are helping now. We are supplying arms and providing economic cooperation. I hope we will further expand humanitarian cooperation, including humanitarian aid and support for the civilian population». Things couldn’t have been stated more plainly.
Of course, this was not about Syria alone. Putin was also proclaiming to the world audience that in the five years or so since he famously bemoaned that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a «geopolitical disaster,» Russia has risen as a great power. Without doubt, G20 summit at St. Petersburg becomes a watershed event in the functioning of the international system. A two-decade old slice of world politics is breaking away, characterized by «unipolar predicament» borne out of triumphalist notions.
Now, Obama’s press conference showed that the president seems to understand this, because he kept emphasizing that the US needs to act on Syria in the name of «credibility». Obama didn’t explain why a military strike against Syria would make the terrible situation in that country any better. The fact of the matter is that the US has very little idea. His focus was on America and the risk of eroding American power in the world. It was dictated more by concerns over America’s reputation and less about what the US actually hopes to accomplish. Obama lamely argued for a foreign policy involving the use of lethal force that was more about America’s identity, its image abroad and internal or external pressures.
His only stimulating argument was that leadership involved taking tough decisions even when they could be unpopular. He cited Franklin Roosevelt’s decision to participate in World War II and Bill Clinton’s on Kosovo. Indeed, this is a controversial thought. Neither Vietnam nor Afghanistan and Iraq were «unpopular» wars when they began. Clearly, wars have a habit of mutating. Secondly, the analogy of World War II or Kosovo aren’t quite in order because in Syria, what is disconcerting is, as the distinguished American diplomat Ryan Crocker (who also served as ambassador to Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan) put it, «Our [America’s] biggest problem is ignorance; we’re pretty ignorant about Syria».
Besides, sometimes it happens that it is even more of a leadership quality to say ‘No’ to wars even if they may appear ‘popular’. The following are excerpts of an opinion piece in Washington Post earlier in the week authored by a retired general in the US Army and a former commandant of the US Army War College Robert H. Scales:
«Our most respected soldier president, Dwight Eisenhower, possessed the gravitas and courage to say no to war eight times during his presidency. He ended the Korean War and refused to aid the French in Indochina; he said no to his former wartime friends Britain and France when they demanded U.S. participation in the capture of the Suez Canal. And he resisted liberal democrats who wanted to aid the newly formed nation of South Vietnam. We all know what happened after his successor ignored Eisenhower’s advice».
Obama’s main problem is that he has come under pressure from the Republican Right as a «weak» president and he feels the political need to demonstrate that’s not the case. His current predicament, on the other hand, is that some of these very same detractors have changed sides and are identifying with the popular opinion. In short, Syria is an issue of American domestic politics. Obama said, «there may be certain members of the Congress who say we’ve got to do even more, or claim to have previously criticized me for not hitting [Syrian president Bashar] Assad and now are saying they’re going to vote no, and you’ll have to ask them exactly how they square that circle».
Nonetheless, Obama refused to reveal whether he’d go ahead with the military operation against Syria notwithstanding a negative vote by Congress. He’d rather be seen as on course while robustly canvassing the support from Congressmen and preparing for a nation-wide television address on Tuesday.
The big question is what next. Indeed, what happens if there is a ‘Nay’ from the Congress? This is where two things Obama said assume significance. One, his characterization of his exchange with Putin as «a candid and constructive conversation» and the friendly tone in which he referred to the Russian president cannot but be noted. Obama sidestepped the glaring US-Russian differences over Syria to underscore that «we both agree that the underlying conflict can only be resolved through a political transition as envisioned by the Geneva I and Geneva II process. And so we need to move forward together… it remains important for us to work together to try to urge all parties in the conflict to try to resolve it».
In a manner of speaking, he was also addressing Putin (as much as the American people) when he repeatedly held out the assurance regarding «a limited, proportional strike… not Iraq, not putting boots on the ground; not some long, drawn-out affair…» Equally, Obama signaled, «My military assured me that we could act today, tomorrow, a month from now…»
This is where Obama’s admission that he still keeps an «open» mind merits careful attention. Asked pointedly towards the end of Obama’s press conference whether he could consider new ideas that could «enhance international sense of security for Syria but delay military action», he replied as follows:
«I am listening to all thee ideas. And some of them are constructive. And I’m listening to ideas in Congress, and I’m listening to ideas here. But I want to repeat here: My goal is to maintain the international norm on banning chemical weapons. I want that enforcement to be real. I want it to be serious.
«If there are tools that we can use to ensure that, obviously my preference would be, again, to act internationally in a serious way and to make sure that Mr. Assad gets the message. I’m not itching for military action… I have a well-deserved reputation for taking very seriously and soberly the idea of military engagement. So we will look at these ideas. So far, at least, I have not seen ideas presented that as a practical manner I think would do the job…
«But I want to emphasize that we continue to consult with our international partners. I’m listening to Congress… And if there are good ideas that are worth pursuing then I’m going to be open to it».
To be sure, Putin has made a profound contribution to world peace and international security by skillfully navigating the G20 event to a forceful moment in marshaling the international opinion on Syria, which has apparently compelled Obama to open his mind to new ideas that can serve American concerns with regard to Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles but without having to unleash the dogs of war for that purpose.
Putin disclosed that he and Obama «agreed on some possible scenarios designed to settle this crisis peacefully» and the two foreign ministers «will be in touch in the near future to discuss this very sensitive issue».
Of course, there is no surety that a US-led military attack can be averted in the coming days or weeks. The point is, Obama is also under immense pressure from his Persian Gulf allies and Turkey. But the pendulum may have shown signs of bestirring movement – tentatively and not yet obvious to the naked eye – toward dialogue and negotiations. If the tentative dynamic gathers momentum – and, the probability of that happening cannot be ruled out – then, this will come to be noted as the finest hour in Putin’s contribution as a statesman on the world stage.