Syria charade now in full swing

With surprising speed even by today’s low standards of international diplomacy, the charade over Syria’s chemical weapons is now in full swing. No one who has watched years of failed negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear program or Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi WMD program can be even remotely surprised by the news that the Obama administration will let Bashar Assad’s government miss the very first deadline in the Russian-brokered “agreement” to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control. That first step, you may remember, was outlined by Nobel Peace Prize contender Secretary of State John Kerry thusly:

“We agreed that Syria must submit within a week — not in 30 days, but in one week — a comprehensive listing [of its chemical weapons],” Kerry said Saturday. He said the U.S. would allow “no games, no room for avoidance, or anything less than full compliance.”

That sure sounded like the diplomatic equivalent of a red line. Well, not so fast, Pollyanna. Turns out the new and improved State Department policy is a tad bit different from the threatening overtones of America’s chief deal-maker:

Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, said Wednesday that “our goal is to see forward momentum” by Saturday, not the full list. “We’ve never said it was a hard and fast deadline.”

Got that? The Obama administration must certainly assume you had completely turned off your frontal cortex in order to be able to swallow such unadulterated codswallop.

But take comfort, America. We have “top men working on it right now” (as they say in Raiders of the Lost Ark). Their Metternichean-like strategic antennae are twitching out messages such as “forward momentum.” Ah, the numbing certitudes of diplo-speak, the opiate of the elites. That’s what you and I would call “hogwash,” but that would only prove how unsophisticated we are at the high-stakes poker table of international geopolitics. Why, it was barely two weeks ago that the world trembled at the thought of an “unbelievably small” U.S. military strike designed to . . . well, designed apparently to do nothing. Oh yes, it was supposed to “change the momentum,” which sounds like one of those dance crazes thought up by Dick Clark back in the ’50s.

No, the only momentum change the Obama administration has achieved is to go from “unbelievable” to “laughable.” Now that they have stumbled headfirst into another dialogue trap, they will be petrified at the thought of doing anything to seem like they are undercutting any of the fine intricacies of U.N. “processes” – which is another term for “not gonna happen.” Assad may have sweated a bit until he saw the Americans fold their hand right at the first bid; now he knows he can rope them along for as long as he needs to win his bloody little war and keep all his really important weapons.

This is good news for Assad’s godfather, Russian president Vladimir Putin. The soon-to-be longest-ruling Russian leader since Stalin may have worried, in between downing a whole bottle of vodka and skinning a live brown bear, that he might have to guide the witless Americans along for a while until they got so confused by what they had agreed to that the whole deal blew away like the fairy dust that it was from the beginning. No, Putin can now move on to more important things, like figuring out how to help Iran build up its air defenses and complete its nuclear program, since the U.N. process — another term for “you got played, sucker” – has metastasized into the hopeless quagmire it was always intended to be. One can only guess at the bottomless reservoir of contempt in which he holds Obama and this entire country.

Lots of Americans undoubtedly aren’t really excercised by all this. That inconvenient Syria stuff is a “tempest in a teacup, much ado about nothing” (as they say in Good Morning, Vietnam). After all, we’re still the most powerful and respected nation on earth, right? They must have missed that the heads of the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force all told Congress last week that, thanks to current and impending budget cuts, their services “would not be able to execute the most basic strategic requirement of the US military: defeating an enemy in a single major theater operation.” Out of money and out of ideas, diplomatically overmatched and militarily underpowered, well on the way to becoming a giant Potemkin country. That’s certainly one path to “fundamentally transforming the United States of America.” Luckily for us, weakening the country is a bipartisan game, the only one we seem to be competent at anymore.

This is how a superpower ends: not with a bang, but with a “what, me worry?”

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About the Author


  • Michael Auslin is a resident scholar and the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he studies Asian regional security and political issues.

    Before joining AEI, he was an associate professor of history at Yale University. A prolific writer, Auslin is a biweekly columnist for The Wall Street Journal Asia, which is distributed globally on His longer writings include the book “Pacific Cosmopolitans: A Cultural History of U.S.-Japan Relations” (Harvard University Press, 2011) and the study “Security in the Indo-Pacific Commons: Toward a Regional Strategy” (AEI Press, 2010). He was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, a Marshall Memorial Fellow by the German Marshall Fund, and a Fulbright and Japan Foundation Scholar.

    Auslin has a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an M.A. from Indiana University at Bloomington, and a B.S.F.S. from Georgetown University.

    Follow Michael Auslin on Twitter.

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