By Robert Hutchings, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Robert Hutchings is dean of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas and co-director of its “Reinventing Diplomacy” initiative. He served as chairman of the U.S. National Intelligence Council from 2003 to 2005. The views expressed are his own.
Clausewitz famously wrote about the fog of war – the confusion and chaos that undermine even the best laid battle plans. The same could be said of diplomacy, particularly the last two weeks of American diplomacy toward Syria.
In an earlier commentary, I praised the Obama administration for handling an intractable challenge reasonably well, but warned of the danger of escalation once military action commenced. That was before the decision to delay action while consulting Congress. Since then, the administration’s cautious approach has unraveled, and the president has wholly lost control over U.S. policy.
There was no need to go to the full Congress – and many reasons not to do so. The limited strikes the administration was considering did not rise to a level that required Congressional endorsement. Consultations with senior Congressional leadership, even without gaining their full support, would have been sufficient. The policy would then have been judged by its effectiveness, and had the objectives been limited to punishment for the al-Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, there were good prospects of success. Taking such limited but important action without Congressional authorization could easily have been defended on grounds of urgency.
Diplomacy is hard enough when top political leaders limit the scope for surprise and “wild card” events. When they open up the floodgates, as President Obama did by announcing a controversial action but delaying implementation and exposing the issue to Congressional and public debate, political leaders should not be surprised when they lose control. Administration officials can be excused for not foreseeing how quickly and thoroughly this happened – it surprised everyone – but they should have been aware that this hedging tactic would open up an unpredictable and uncontrollable dynamic that risked undermining the policy before it was even tried. Such is the fog of war – and of diplomacy.
The wild card event was the Russian gambit of offering to broker a chemical weapons deal with Damascus. But while this precise event may have been unpredictable, it was easy to anticipate that the Russians would try an eleventh hour ploy to delay American action and sow confusion, just as they did in sending Yevgeny Primakov to Baghdad before the first Gulf War. The gambit didn’t work back then, but the latest Russian move has worked all too well this time, leaving the Russians in the role of global peacemakers. (Why does this not make us feel more secure?)
Moreover, in the diplomatic haze of the last two weeks, the administration evidently forgot that its objective was to punish the Syrian regime for actions it had already taken, not to embark on a protracted negotiation aimed at ridding that country of its chemical weapons stockpiles. It is like letting a convicted murderer go free if he agrees to turn in his gun. It was Syria’s use of chemical weapons that concerns us, not mere possession of the capacity, which can be quickly regenerated anyway.
Secretary of State John Kerry now asserts that the president is “deeply committed to a negotiated solution.” How did we come to this point, when not so many days ago the administration was committed to an entirely different course of action?
U.S. policy is clearly in shambles. It cannot be retrieved. There is no point in trying to revert to the punitive strategy that was originally intended. But neither should a chastened Administration, seeking to recover lost credibility, undertake more extreme actions that would involve us more directly in Syria’s civil war. This course of action was a bad idea before. It remains a bad idea.
But arming the Free Syrian Army, a superficially attractive, low-risk option, runs the danger of gradual escalation as the initial “light” intervention proves insufficient. And what then? Escalation to heavier weapons and the use of covert advisers to provide training on how to use them? Policy failure can induce even a risk-averse administration to become risk-prone by doubling down its bets.
For the near term the administration has little choice but to follow the “diplomatic” route that it has been led to embrace, set short deadlines for action, steer the process away from Russia and into the U.N. Security Council, and work to restore some semblance of domestic and international consensus. Within the U.N. Security Council, the administration should set firm requirements for securing Syrian compliance with the alleged “deal” on chemical weapons via a highly intrusive inspection, verification, and monitoring regime under U.N. auspices but with substantial U.S. participation.
And the administration must stick to its guns this time, not simply engage in tough talk for a while, but ultimately accept whatever arrangement the Russians and Syrians devise. Otherwise, as we experienced with Iraq for more than a decade following the first Gulf War, the opportunities for delay and obfuscation are endless, and we will wind up having allowed the al-Assad regime to escape any retribution or indeed any consequences at all for its use of chemical weapons.
Disheartening as this episode in American diplomacy has been, we will be dealing with a volatile Middle East for a long time to come. There is an urgent need for a wholesale stocktaking and reassessment at the highest levels of the administration, with a view to the longer term. The stakes are too high to allow one policy failure to paralyze us.