OPINION

The march of folly interrupted

The criticism leveled at Barack Obama for his handling of Syria says much more about his critics, and the sorry level of much political analysis these days, than about the US president’s tactics. Beyond the noise and confusion, we must not lose sight of the essence: The proposal to place Syria’s chemical arsenal under international supervision, however complicated, solves many problems, whereas a military operation would have created new dangers. Even as the Syrian question headed for an impasse, there is now an opportunity for a meaningful intervention in the slaughter.

The United States, the Syrian regime and the international community were mutually trapped last month when chemical weapons were launched into a Damascus suburb under rebel control. Suspicion immediately fell on the regime. Obama had declared that crossing the “red line” by using chemical weapons would trigger his country’s dynamic reaction. The president’s choice was simple but difficult: Launch a military operation, whose outcome no one could predict, or back down and accept a mighty blow to America’s credibility. History is full of instances where foolish pride has pushed nations toward disaster, so it seemed inevitable that the United States would get tangled up in a war it wanted to avoid.

Obama faced generals who did not believe the operation would end well. In Congress, very few members supported the motion for military intervention, public opinion was overwhelmingly opposed to it, as were most countries in the international community. Acting unilaterally, or with a small “coalition of the willing,” Obama would have broken international law in order to impose international law on Syria. And so he would have continued the proud tradition of George W. Bush, who led his country to disaster in Iraq 10 years ago.

Accepting Russia’s intervention, with its proposal that Syria’s chemical weapons be placed under international supervision, Obama gains on many fronts. If the initiative works out, it eradicates the danger of other countries using such weapons, as they will have seen the reaction that this provokes; the Syrian regime will be weakened without the country being handed over to the unpredictable coalition of rebels; the US president will have averted a costly political defeat in Congress; and it will strengthen the UN’s credibility and uphold international law. Consequently, it will bolster the international community’s sense of trust in the system of global governance.

If the Russian initiative turns out to be a trick, then Obama will be forced to act in order to restore his country’s prestige. But he will have much greater support this time, as there will be many Americans and others who will feel cheated for having placed their hopes in diplomacy. It is fortunate that, unlike so many other instances in history, this time the march toward the cliff has been interrupted.