Earlier this week, before President Obama’s September 10 address on Syria and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s proposal to place Syria’s chemical weapons under international control, Hillary used a CNN interview, see here, to go beyond near-term analysis of unfolding developments and examine what the Syria crisis says about America’s current standing in international affairs—and how the choices Washington makes regarding Syria will have enormous consequences for America’ strategic trajectory moving forward.
In the current context, Hillary explains, the real strategic problem for the United States is that
“after invading Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya—each one of them less and less effectively, with more and more blowback—we are now in the position, I think, that if we attack Syria, with what President Obama has planned, it will show the world that U.S. military might, our political power, and our economic power are seriously declining.”
Indeed, Hillary argues, the most strategically consequential effects of U.S. military action against Syria would be to underscore how much American power has declined in relative terms, just since the 9/11 attacks a dozen years ago:
“If we decide to strike, there is no victory, there is no military victory; it will be a failure. Even President Obama is not claiming there is a military solution to this, that he is proposing. He is saying that there just needs to be a message sent—punishment. Nobody out there claims, puts forward, that there is a victory. What this shows the world is that after Afghanistan, after Iraq, after Libya, the United States is less and less able, less and less capable of pulling off what it says it needs to pull off—militarily, politically, and economically.”
If the United States continues with this not just quixotic but grossly counterproductive quest for regional hegemony, Hillary notes,
“This could be the nail in the coffin for American influence in the Middle East. We have seen a precipitous decline in U.S. influence over the past decade. We have squandered so much, so fast, that I think historians will look back and be stupefied that we have used our military force, unconstrained, to go into countries that we don’t understand, trying to force political outcomes that, time and time again, were shown not possible. We couldn’t do it in Afghanistan, we couldn’t do it in Iraq, we couldn’t do it in Libya, and we keep trying. And each time we try, we come out weaker…We [remain] interested in forcing a political outcome with our military force—something that we have now seen, over and over and over again, is not working.”
The counterproductive consequences of unilaterally asserting hegemonic prerogatives through the exercise of military force is also an important theme in a richly interesting interview that the Islamic Republic of Iran’s new foreign minister, Javad Zarif, gave to Press TV on September 11 (the day after Obama’s address), see here. The interview is worth watching in its entirety; we want to focus on Zarif’s observations on the Syrian situation and its ramifications for America’s regional and international standing.
Talking about U.S. charges that Syrian government forces used chemical weapons on August 21 and the Obama administration’s threats to use military force in response, Zarif said,
“The use of chemical weapons is a crime, we believe it is a crime against humanity, but we believe that also the use of force, the threat of use of force, is also a criminal offense in international law. Unfortunately it seems to me that the United States seems to be living in the 19th century when the use of force was a prerogative of states; it is not…When [the President of the United States] concedes, as he did last night before the American people, that there is no imminent or direct threat against the United States, then the United States doesn’t have any standing under any provision of international law, to take law in its own hands.”
Zarif then extends his analysis to make a truly important point:
“There is a need for the United States to come to the realization, and I believe this is an important realization for the United States, that not only the use of force is illegal, that not only the threat of force is against a preemptory international norm of law, but also and more importantly the use of force is ineffective. Force has lost its utility in international relations and it lost its utility a long time ago.
In 1928, civilized countries decided to reject the use of force as an instrument of national policy; before then, force or war was an instrument of national policy, they thought that war was diplomacy by another means. But since then, the international community has come to its senses, believing that the use of force doesn’t provide the necessary outcome that those who started it wanted to provide and wanted to produce and that is why they have outlawed the use of force. It is not a bunch of idealistic lawyers who sat down and banned the use of force, but in fact because of the reality that it has lost [its] utility.
Let me just tell you that in the 20th century, 85 percent of the cases, where a country resorted to force, have resulted in that country either being annihilated or not achieving the intended consequences of the war, so that shows to you empirically that force is no longer effective. I hope that the United States, which is the mightiest country on the face of the earth, would come to this realization that it is important to use other means of influence; force is no longer effective.”
Among the more striking things about the last couple of weeks is that, after August 21, much of America’s political class was initially still inclined to support President Obama’s call for illegal U.S. aggression against Syria. Likewise—as Hillary experienced first-hand, see here—much of the mainstream media comported themselves with roughly the same paltry measure of journalistic rigor that they applied to critiquing the George W. Bush administration’s case for invading and occupying Iraq in 2003. But, for once, the American public rejected a sitting administration’s case for war—and rejected it overwhelmingly, according to polls, to a point where even many congressmen and senators not normally recognized as profiles in courage understood that they needed to stiff the president on this one.
We don’t know yet if Americans’ rejection of Obama’s call for illegal and strategically dysfunctional U.S. military action against Syria represents the beginning of a true sea change in popular attitudes about American foreign policy. Perhaps it was simply the product of a contingent concatenation of circumstances—post-Iraq/(not quite) post-Afghanistan/post-Libya “war weariness,” frustration with a slow economic recovery and an uncertain long-term economic future, recognition that (this time around, anyway) the President’s case for war was intellectually and strategically empty. But perhaps Americans are at least at the start of a real learning curve.
Only time will tell. And there’s still so much work to do if America is to have at least some shred of a chance to make better strategic and moral choices about how it deals with the rest of the world.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett