Winston Churchill is often credited with describing diplomacy as “the art of letting other people have your way.” The sentiment rings true, regardless of whether Sir Winston actually said it. The United States has forgotten the power of effective diplomacy. In fact, the policy of the last three American presidents (at least) has been to react and fire, instead of implementing a systematic comprehensive foreign policy based on negotiation.
The world is a dangerous place, many will argue. That is undoubtedly true. The grizzly images of children dead in the street, apparently from Sarin gas, would sicken any one. The magnitude of the conflict in Syria overwhelms: more than 100,000 dead, more than two million displaced from their homes. Both the government and the rebels have dug their heels in, fighting to stalemates in the regions around Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs. Bashar al-Assad’s regime retains control of key areas. The rebels have perilous holds on other sections of the country. The conflict could easily continue in this way for years. Yes, the world is a dangerous place. So what exactly will a few dozen Tomahawk missiles do to fix it?
President Obama wants to send a message to the Assad regime that the use of Chemical weapons against anyone will not be tolerated by the citizens of the world. He is surely right about this: the introduction of weapons which even Hitler refused to use in combat represents an ever-more brazen escalation by Assad. Yet his decision to ask for Congress’ approval clearly shows his reticence toward even a limited military response. Maybe he simply wants to return some power of war and peace to Congress, where it rightly belongs, after decades of unconstitutional seizure by the Executive Branch. But if President Obama secretly harbors grave doubts about sending troops into Syria, then he should not ask for an authorization of force at all.
From a military perspective, sending some rockets into Damascus is akin to throwing a quarter into the Grand Canyon. Worse, it might be like throwing a match into a pile of dynamite. Who knows how Assad, Hezbollah, or Vladimir Putin will react to use of force. Unless the United States wants to commit 100,000 troops to Syria (which it emphatically does not), then a small display of force seems irresponsible.
This brings me back to diplomacy. The United States and its allies have international pressure on their side. The use of chemical weapons could be the United States’ opportunity to apply real pressure on the Syrian regime in the United Nations. President Obama should call for an immediate ceasefire, pending negotiations of a new constitution which respects the rights of all people, especially Christian and other minorities.
Peace can only come from a real encounter of persons. The encounter cannot be one mediated by heavy artillery but by mutual understanding and, above all, a desire for peace. The trouble now, after so much fighting, is whether either side of the Syrian conflict is capable of negotiation. Real diplomacy requires a willingness to limit one’s self-interest in order to achieve some ends that are agreeable to all. I am still convinced this is possible in Syria.
The United States is the world’s police officer. Some Americans, the modern-day isolationists, reject this proposition. Others, the neo-cons, are all too happy to use that as a prop to overthrow regimes around the world and impose American-style democracy on people who may or may not want it. Despite the rise of China, the re-emergence of Russia, and the re-alignment of NATO, the world will continue to look to the United States to settle everyone’s disputes. The question is: how do we use that authority? For the past fifty years, the United States has slouched from one armed conflict to the next, often without a clear plan for success. The result has been the loss of untold lives – American and others – and destabilized regions from the Korean peninsula to North Africa to Bolivia. President Obama has an opportunity to take the world in a new direction. If the world’s watchdog insists on negotiation and sound diplomacy as the answer to violence and unrest, everyone else will have to follow suit. The answer to war is not more war; it is peace. Let us approach the diplomatic option with intensity and purpose and leave the aircraft carriers to defend the interests of the United States. Then perhaps we may have peace in our time.
Photos courtesy of CNN, AP, The Economist.