The comment by Sen. John McCain about the weekend deal by the United States, Russia and Syria to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons was as good as any made by any commentator.
By Richard Gwyn
It was “crazy,” McCain said, because “as we speak today there will be a planeload of arms, conventional weapons, landing from Moscow to be used to kill Syrians. At the same time, we will be dismantling (its) chemical weapons.”
He’s right. Except for one detail, and a sizable one. Weak and illogical and fuzzy and fragile although the deal undoubtedly is, it’s a great deal better than any alternative.
Some of the advantages of the otherwise very suspect agreement are obvious: the U.S. will not, now, be going to war with yet another Middle Eastern country. As damaging, any such war would have been illegal since Russia and China would have used their vetoes to prevent approval of it by the United Nations.
Alternatives to such an outcome now become at least possible. Having last been able to actually agree on something, Russia and the United States should find it easier to agree on other things. The prime new possibility, and by far and away the most important one, would be these two countries beginning to develop a common approach to Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
Predictably, that American missiles won’t now streak towards Damascus has enabled Syrian President Bashar Assad to claim a victory.
But, as long suspected, Assad has had to admit that he’s been hoarding chemical weapons.
He has a lot more to admit to. The UN is about to report it has “convincing evidence” the attack on the northern town of Khan Assal, that killed some 1,400 civilians, was indeed a chemical attack.
The UN won’t disclose who it believes committed the crime. The answer though is obvious. Chemical attacks can only be done by troops trained in the use of toxic materials and equipped with the kind of highly accurate rockets that were fired into Khan Assal.
Assad thus has won a temporary military victory at the cost of exposing himself, permanently, as a moral monster.
U.S. role reinforced
The most considerable benefit gained by the deal, no matter how messy and confused it is, has the potential to be the most considerable benefit of all.
Assad expressed it back in 2009, before his civil war had begun. He tossed off the comment that “there is no substitute for the U.S.”
That’s not wholly true. But it is, still, largely so. While many resent American interventions around the world, no imaginable alternative global policeman exists, neither the UN nor any “alliance of the willing” among other nations.
Had U.S. President Barack Obama gone ahead with the attack on Syria, he personally and Americans collectively would have lost the mandate given grudgingly to them to perform as a global policeman.
Equally, though, had Obama allowed the use of chemical weapons to go unpunished, it’s highly likely Americans would have responded by turning away from an “ungrateful” world into isolationism. The price Americans have paid for the role they’ve performed shouldn’t be underestimated.
Two million of them served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of these it’s now estimated that at least one in five returned with post-traumatic stress disorders.
Thus, when most Americans told pollsters they didn’t want to go to war in Syria, many of them at the same time were saying they didn’t want to go to any wars on anyone else’s behalf.
So we all owe Russian President Vladimir Putin a certain debt, no matter how distasteful that may be. He provided a way for the United States to continue to perform a policing role for which the rest of the world has as yet found, to requote Assad, “no substitute,” but itself now more aware of its limits, perhaps even a bit humbled.
It’s most certainly possible that the deal on chemical weapons won’t work. It’s also all but certain that Syria’s civil war will continue, as murderously as ever. But the international system is still working, or at least is working sort of, and, as much as anything, by luck.
Richard Gwyn’s column appears every other Thursday. firstname.lastname@example.org