TOM PLATE WRITES – You have to admit that the timing of the Russian ploy to trip up (or at least drag President Obama’s feet on) any U.S. bombing of Moscow ally Syria was exquisite. I for one would now not only want to avoid playing Russian roulette with Vladimir Putin but also would stay out of a high-stakes all-night poker game with him. Contemporary historians will now feel required to reassess the quality of the diplomacy of the Putin government. At the moment it does not looks so heavy-footed or even particularly un-artful, does it?
The proposal pushed into prominence is that Damascus consign its chemical stocks to international authority. This came on the eve of expected U.S Congressional votes on Obama’s proposed punishment of the Assad government’s evident use of chemical weapons inside Syria. The result is to delay that vote pending clarification of the Russian position, and move the world spotlight to the negotiating battlefields of Geneva – and the United Nations in New York.
To be honest, I couldn’t be happier about this development. Count me as among one of the gazillions of Americans with general growing doubts about the efficacy of U.S. military power to deal with issues that are either primarily political or do not directly threaten U.S. national security. There is no question that we could get away with a bombing run or missile shower into Syria. But the main achievement might be only to show further disrespect for the role of the UN Security Council as the primary legitimate international sanctioneer of the use of force against any given sovereign state. How sad and pathetic would it have been for Obama over Syria to go down the same tawdry path as George W. Bush over Iraq? Does might always make right?
For my money the coolest head in today’s hot world kitchen has been that of United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Though little commented upon in the news media, it was Ban who had denied the breathless and brainless U.S. request to put off the organization’s scheduled official on-site UN inspection of the chemical-usage in Syria. This under-rated secretary general wisely, quietly and rather cleverly managed to slow down the process of war escalation while not letting Assad off the moral hook by pushing forward with the inspection (now in the final process of evaluation and report, due soon).
In this, the former South Korean foreign minister is indeed very much in tune, consciously or not, with the anti-war mood of the American people. Too often the military option is offered as the best (or even only) solution to a very thorny world problem. Ban’s view – blessedly — is that only in exceptional cases will the military option conceivably prove effective or even make sense, especially when there are diplomatic or negotiating options still untapped, unexhausted or even under-utilized.
Right – the secretary general’s principled persistence on the course of negotiation lacks Clint Eastwood cowboy clarity. It also ignores the simplistic reliance on the good-guy/bad-guy breakdown of the issue. And it takes into account, but as any good UN leader should, that member states will have different positions based on their own national interests or serious differences of views on complex issues perhaps even honestly arrived at. After all, should we want to paint the Russians as bad guys for throwing a clever diplomatic monkey wrench into U.S. military plans, we would also need to reflect on the fact that the British Parliament itself recently expressed an anti-bombing view that, frankly, was a monkey wrench of another kind.
To be sure, impatience with the UN Security Council and its inability to agree on so many major issues is not confided to gung-ho Americans. It is widely felt within the UN community itself – and even by the secretary general. But the view of the former South Koran diplomat, now well into his second term, is that the process of negotiation, while it can be exhausting, should not be summarily exhausted.
No one can predict how the Syrian psychodrama will play out. But for those who feel the UN has little or no role to play on major international issues should examine the wise and measured role of its secretary general, who of course for years has been under no illusions about the moral fiber of Assad and his government. He has had a number of tense conversations with the hard-hearted Syrian president, working behind the scenes tirelessly (and, characteristically, quietly). It is now time to give the UN leader and the Security Council an opportunity to come up with something better than the mere use of military force, which inevitably causes mortal collateral damage to civilians no matter how carefully calibrated or purportedly confined to a putative “pinprick” operation.
Americans should not be too concerned about the clever Russian president. Let him have his moment in the sun. Every dog needs to have his day. And sometimes evil can produce good (as the great sociologist Max Weber used to remind us). This may be such a time. Who knows? It might also prove a winning moment for the UN, the Security Council and its principled and relentless secretary general. Why not give them a chance?
Tom Plate’s latest book will be out next month: In the Middle of the Future: Tom Plate on Asia. The Loyola Marymount University professor is also the author of the ‘Giants of Asia’ series, which includes Conversations with Ban Ki-moon.