Notes From the Margins…

Exit Obama, Pursued by a Bear

  • September 11, 2013
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For the time being at least, it looks as though Russian diplomacy may have saved Barack Obama from stumbling into the biggest mistake of his presidency.     Until Monday night,   his administration was locked into a spectacularly amateurish and dishonest diplomatic offensive that appeared to leading inexorably towards a military assault on Syria and a major regional war.

Now the Nobel Prize winner has rediscovered diplomacy, to the relief of many, and none more so than Obama himself.

At times the incompetence of the president and his hapless secretary of state during the past fortnight has been quite breathtaking, as they issued a stream of contradictory statements that baffled and wrong-footed even their own allies, and constantly redefined the purported goals of military intervention in ways that made it alarmingly clear that neither of them knew what they wanted to achieve or how to achieve it.

One minute the US was going to strike at Syria before the United Nations weapons inspectors had even carried out an inspection, and before it had even been proven who had carried out the attack in Ghouta.   Then Obama abruptly postponed military action so that he could go to Congress, while at the same time he hinted that he might take action even if Congress voted no.

Throughout this process the purported goals and motives of military action shifted so often that it sometimes appeared that Obama and Kerry were plucking cards from a pack of Trivial Pursuits.     First military strikes were going to be ‘limited’ in order to ‘punish’ and ‘deter’ Syria from using chemical weapons, then they were going to ‘degrade’ its chemical weapons capacity.

And then Kerry assured the Republican-dominated Senate that strikes ‘would not be pinpricks’ and would seriously damage Syria’s overall military capacity.   But on Monday he was pleading  with wavering Democrats in Congress that they ought to support military action because strikes were in fact going to be ‘unbelievably small’ – something that must have left many of Obama’s generals open-mouthed.

The motives for all this were similarly nebulous.   At first military action was a question of conscience intended to ‘protect the Syria people’, then it was about maintaining US ‘credibility’, then it was the credibility of the international community that was being defended, and finally because Syria was a threat to US national security and to the security of America’s allies.

All this would be more appropriate in a knockabout farce or political satire,   were it not for the fact that war is a very serious business and the savage conflict that is ripping Syria to pieces is very serious indeed.     The administration’s ineptitude did nothing to overcome international skepticism or the war-weariness of the US public, and on Monday morning it was looking as though Obama and Kerry might be forced to launch a war without Congressional approval, without the Brits, and with only France in tow.

It was at that point that Kerry suggested that Syria might be able to avoid military action if it handed over its chemical weapons within a week The Russians promptly picked up the ball and ran with it, and astonishingly, got immediate compliance from Syria.

This was a triumph for Russian diplomacy, but the US and its allies have not surprisingly attempted to take the credit for it.   First Obama claimed that he had suggested such a possibility to Putin at the Moscow conference, then David Cameron, still smarting from the parliamentary vote, claimed that in fact he was the one who came up with the idea.

At this point it’s worth reminding ourselves that neither of these great statesmen thought to mention this proposal publicly when they were in Moscow, and that the White House initially denied that Kerry’s ‘within a week’ suggestion was intended as a serious proposal.

Never mind.   After all the big lies that have been told so far in this dismal affair, a few little ones are par for the course.     The main thing is that the Russian initiative has opened the way for a potential resolution of the chemical weapons issue, and it could also lay the basis for international cooperation aimed at the demilitarision of  the Syrian civil war and an eventual political solution.

Of course both these possibilities are quite remote, and it isn’t clear at all that the countries that wanted to use the chemical weapons issue as a pretext for war particularly want either of them.     The US and its allies in the Security Council are already trying to reframe the Russian proposal in order to transform it into an automatic trigger for military action.

This process has been driven by France, which back in 2003 rejected the Blair/Bush attempt to do the same thing over Iraq, but now wants to lock Syria into an inspection/compliance process that could be used to justify military strikes under the auspices of the Security Council.     This is an old technique of ‘humanitarian’ interventions, in which target regimes are forced to accept ever-more intrusive and unrealistic inspections that few countries would ever agree to, so that they can be whacked when they don’t comply.

The essence of such behavior,  to paraphrase Don Corleone, is to make such regimes an offer that they have to refuse.   France was wary of the trick back in 2003, but now it wants to do the same thing, and our own Lord Snooty has also tried to get in on the act, arguing for a tough resolution in case the Russian/Syrian proposal is a ‘ruse’ – something that could also be said of   the Ghouta chemical attack.

These efforts might yet derail the Russian proposal, but for the time being the Bear’s intervention has saved Obama from a reckless folly that would have finally wrecked his presidency,  and he has been able to return to diplomacy.

Both Obama and Cameron have had the temerity to suggest that the Russian initiative was the result of their foresight and tenacity.   But this is another delusion, because if Cameron had not been voted down in parliament then military strikes would have already taken place.

None of this is much to celebrate, given the magnitude of the disaster in Syria.

But for those of us who believe that Western intervention will make only pour petrol on the flames, even the faint prospect of a different kind of diplomacy aimed at bringing this disastrous conflict towards a negotiated resolution, is preferable to the recklessness,  stupidity and aggression shown by the US and its allies over the last fortnight.


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  1. Nik

    12th Sep 2013 - 4:38 pm

    Well it is the lesser evil – at least for now. But yeah, the same thing you wrote came to my mind when I first read/heard about the plan to inspect, assess and destroy the c-weapon stockpiles. It’s a nice and sneaky way to get the bombing going sooner or later, like you said, just ask for more and more intrusive access until Assad says “no”.

    A thing that might interesst you: The other day I searched the web a bit for Sarin-gas and found some good info on it.

    First of all, it is relatively easy to make, because “[…]if someone starts with the intermediate stage and just puts the chemicals together, he or she can do that with the knowledge of a university chemistry graduate.”(

    And here, also from 1995, a Prof. explaines the same: It’s easy to make, quite cheap but can be dangerous to manufacture.

    So much for “only the govt. could have used it”… not even to mention that some deserters/defectors/rebel-agent provocateur or soon to defect officers could have used/smuggled/stolen it, including the delivery system.

    • Matt

      12th Sep 2013 - 7:51 pm

      Funny how you are able to find this out but the journalists and governments that claim it’s not possible cant…

      • Nik

        13th Sep 2013 - 1:30 pm

        Rather fishy, yeah.

        Guess the difficulty of producing CW depends on who we want to pin the accusation on. Lone-wolfs, easy. Crazy sects, easy. OBL and the Qaidas, easy. Saddam, easy …

        … Al Nusra et al. (brought to you by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and so on), impossible.

  2. Nik

    14th Sep 2013 - 12:18 pm

    Hey Matt, did you hear about the story of Domenico Quirico and Pierre Piccinin, an Italian journalist and a writer from Belgium? They were held hostage for some time and their stories hit the US-conformist news in a rather peculiar way which I wanted to share with you. I added some links below to demonstrate how amazingly the story of the two guys is being filtered. The sweet omission is the following: According to the two guys they overheard their captors talking on Skype to some other rebel leaders in a way which indicates that infact rebel forces used the chemical weapons, not Assad. Not to mention this – as I would think – rather important detail is one thing, but to actually manage to make the highlight of the story that the only ones who treated them ok were the Al Nusra front fighters is actually quite amazing. Even “Der Spiegel” managed to leave out the fact that the two guys are convinced that Assad did not do it due to the conversation they overheard…

    Check this out:

    “It is a moral duty to say this. The government of Bashar al-Assad did not use sarin gas or other types of gas in the outskirts of Damascus,” Piccinin said during an interview with Belgium’s RTL radio station.
    * I know RT has got its own agenda, however, I found the inverview on youtube and inspite of my rather rusty french I can say that this is what he said.

    And now here a few examples on how this was covered:

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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