Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Bluster Loudly and Carry a Small Stick

By Mike Dorf

Over the weekend, I wrote a column asking whether President Obama might bomb Syria even if Congress voted down the resolution authorizing him to do so.  The column was finalized and went live yesterday.  We live in world of short news cycles and so events have arguably already overtaken the column, although I think that it says some things that have salience beyond the immediate crisis.

In any event, the action now focuses on a Russian-brokered proposal for Syria to turn over its chemical weapons to an international team.  With the endorsement of Russia, China, France, the U.S., and perhaps the Assad regime itself, the proposal could well render the prospect of a missile strike moot.  That would surely be for the good.  An internationally supervised transfer will be much more effective at preventing a future chemical strike by Syria and securing the chemical weapons than would be the necessarily cruder tool of a U.S. cruise missile attack.

The chemical weapons transfer proposal could still bog down, but for now, the episode raises the question of whether President Obama's tough threats "worked" in the sense of bringing credible pressure to bear on Syria and Russia so that they agreed to measures that they would not have agreed to in the absence of the threat of a cruise missile attack.

As the title of this post suggests, the answer could be no--given the Administration's repeated assurances to American domestic opinion that the strike would be limited in duration, scope and means.  That might not have been enough of a threat to create real movement.

Nonetheless, I think the right answer is yes.  For one thing, even though Secretary of State Kerry talked about a precise strike on Syria's chemical weapons assets, Assad may have worried about a "decapitation" strike that would have taken him out.  For another thing, even if a targeted missile strike would have been ineffective from the U.S. perspective because it would have led to the dispersal of chemical weapons into even less stable hands, that could have been bad for Assad as well.  So I'm prepared to say that, for now, it looks like the threat was a key motivator in producing what could be a diplomatic solution to the chemical weapons issue.  And perhaps that in turn might even spark a wider diplomatic effort to end the civil war--although it remains too soon to say that.

Does this all mean that the Obama Administration was right to threaten missile strikes and critics of this approach, like yours truly, were wrong?  I'm always happy to admit that I was wrong when things work out for the best, but here I still think that the threats were misguided ex ante, even if they end up working out well ex post.

Why?  Because in order for a threat to be credible, one needs to be prepared to carry it out--and there was every indication here that the Obama Administration was not merely making threats to gain bargaining leverage but actually wanted to bomb Syria.  This approach is extraordinarily risky.  Perhaps it's an unfair comparison, but I think of the Democratic Senators--including the current Secretary of State and his immediate predecessor--who voted to authorize President Bush to go to war with Iraq as a supposed means to give him leverage in seeking a diplomatic solution.  The comparison may be unfair because Bush probably never would have settled for any sort of diplomatic solution.  But it may not be unfair because that's the sort of posture one must take in order to gain real leverage.

Consider an even more inflammatory comparison.  The country in the world that has the best recent track record of threatening military strikes to obtain negotiating concessions is North Korea.  Is that really the model on which the conduct of U.S. foreign policy ought to be based?


Anonymous said...

It does not surprise me that a "lawyer type" would just gloss over the fundamental issues confronting Syria (and for that matter the world): The rudimentary fact that there is no evidence, indeed quite that contrary, that Assad was in any way responsible for the chemical weapons strikes which murdered innocent people in March and August 2013, let-alone your not-so-coy implied notion that he ordered such.

Your trendy blog, consistent with the AIPAC/Netanyahu war mongering, babbles away as if we were born yesterday, and should just be bulled over by your "contribution." Put that routine out of your mind; and stop insulting even the lay person with your pseudo-religious fervor that, for those of us who know better, has advocated war, in any form, since at least the day when the skies darkened over Golgotha.

In your 2nd paragraph you babble, "An internationally supervised transfer will be much more effective at preventing a future chemical strike by Syria ..." So, tell us "professor," what are you proposing, by way of supervision, to prevent use of illegal phosphorous weapons on innocent people in, say, Gaza? Or your proposal to prevent the illegal boarding and five-bullet murdering of innocent 17 year old Americans on aid vessels? Or psychotic rants from fellow professor Martin Van Crevel who said the zionist state had the capability and openly threatened hitting European capitals with nuclear weapons.

Again "professor," what evidence do you have that Assad ordered the chemical murders of March and August 2013? Be specific.

In any case, on this anniversary of 9/11, tell your friends Oded Ellner, Paul Kurzberg, Sivan Kurzberg, Omer Marmari and Yaron Shmuel it is WE that will never forget.

Michael C. Dorf said...

Paul: I'm glad that you think my blog is "trendy", but the rest of your comment suggests that you have confused me with someone else.

Anonymous said...

That's all it is; at best trendy. Your diversionary response was anticipated. Nothing of substance. Nothing of relevance. Nothing on-point. 'Just garbled, self-effacing effluvium.

But contrary to your pusillanimity, I have NOT confused you with "someone else" (whoever that is). Who exactly?

Now, are you going to answer the question posed to you (twice!) regarding your not-so-coy notion that Assad was responsible? Let's start there; in case you missed it, my follow-up is merely a "Yes or NO" question. Let's start there.

Michael C. Dorf said...

Paul: The belligerent tone of your comments gives me reason to believe that my answers will not satisfy you, so I doubt that I will engage with you further after this response. Nonetheless, I shall treat your queries as though they had been posed in good faith and with civility. In addition, in the spirit of free expression, I won't delete any further intemperate remarks you choose to post. Perhaps you will even surprise me and post a civil comment. Now to your points.

Every one of my posts and my column on the proposed Syria bombing has come down squarely AGAINST the proposed cruise missile strikes. Every other one of my readers has recognized as much, with some criticizing me as too dovish. Thus, I was and remain baffled by your accusation that I have "advocated war." That, in turn, led me to think that you were confusing me with someone who advocates war, whoever that might be.

I have been arguing that it would be illegal and unwise to bomb Syria even if it were proven that Syria used chemical weapons. My argument would be all the stronger if it turns out that Syria did not use chemical weapons. Accordingly, I have assumed for the sake of argument that the Assad regime used chemical weapons. I haven't tried to prove that it did so because I make the assumption as a concession to those who disagree with my bottom line, not as a piece of my affirmative argument against U.S. military intervention in Syria.

Anonymous said...

I can assure you, no one of integrity/intelligence regards your ongoing diversions, now relating to your servile subjective notions about "belligerent tone," to have any credibility whatsoever.

Just so we are clear, your new diversion about " I shall treat your queries as though they had been posed in good faith and with civility" furthers that assessment . . . There was nothing in my first post that indicated otherwise. ‘Quite the contrary. Specifically, not being trendy enough for your tastes is of no import, and has no relation to your subjectivities.

But let's make this so simple that even you can understand: Calling out someone that pretends to represent my alma mater, with the type of rubbish you spew regarding/promoting matters of death and mayhem of innocent people, is the essence of “good faith.” Understood professor?

In that so-called brain of yours, you would attempt to convince someone that merely being bulled over with a bunch of pseudo-peaceful legalistic goo is the essence of civility (i.e. civic duty) . . . you are sadly mistaken at-best, deeply psychotic at-worst. Any questions?

Again, so simple that even you MIGHT understand, and addressing your latest self-effacing ramblings that you have allegedly “been arguing that it would be illegal and unwise to bomb Syria even if it were proven that Syria used chemical weapons” . . . That is NOT what I posted/asked about. And you know it.

I very specifically posted in response to your blog of September 10, 2013, not some alleged previous post; perhaps you should get your eyes checked, or take a refresher course in reading comprehension. And again, your not-so-coy verbiage in THIS post portrayed/insinuated that Assad was in-fact directly culpable. I asked you, again now for the third time:

“ . . . what evidence do you have that Assad ordered the chemical murders of March and August 2013? Be specific.”

Because you are fundamentally non-forthright, you have STILL not answered that question directly; instead rambling into some alleged nonsense about “illegal and unwise.”

The simple answer to my question professor, is that you have no evidence that Assad ordered the chemical murders of March and August 2013 . . . there now, that wasn’t so integrity-consuming, was it? In any case, I did not ask you anything about your alleged wisdom.

Indeed professor . . . you are proving here, for all to see, that it is YOU that is devoid of civility, that it is YOU that is devoid of good faith.

In truth, what could be more “belligerent” than an agenda-driven professor of law that implicitly refuses to answer a simple, relevant question (a question codified by HIS post) with directness and veracity? ‘Not questions that relate to hockey scores, but to the issues of war, death, mayhem and, in this instance, culpability.

Regarding the latter, are you saying, as an alleged professor of law, that Assad, from your bigoted perspective, is “guilty until proven innocent”? Is that your perspective . . . professor?

You haven’t fooled anyone . . . except perhaps the Cornell law student that is beholden to your “expertise” in the effort to graduate.

Finally, and make no mistake about this, as long as you make public statements (of import) you will be “engaged” about those statements. Understood?

(I have taken screen shots of this discussion anticipating your deletion of such.)

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