Friday, 13 September 2013

When the bad cops get the good cop to back off a little

So Bashar al-Assad may put his chemical weapons under international control.

It was Churchill who said that ‘to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war’. As a wartime Prime Minister who certainly didn’t shirk from conflict, he was well placed to judge. In that spirit, it
’s good to see an initiative that might just give diplomacy a chance, before a resort to missiles.

If he could express a preference for peace...
Assad’s made clear, on Russian television, that his decision had nothing to do with the threat of US force, but merely in response to the urging of his good friend Vladimir Putin. 

That’s what what you do for your mate, right? Help out when asked. If you can.

My scepticism about the value of just raining down a few missiles on Syria is second to no 
one’s, not least the Russian president’s. But I don’t like being taken for a fool, and anyone who thinks that the threat of US force had nothing to do with focusing Assad’s mind, to say nothing of Putin’s, isn’t living on our planet.

Similarly, Putin’s assertion in his New York Times article that it’s possible the chemical weapons at Ghouta were released by rebels, is the stuff of satire. It undermines the credibility of his other quite good observations: the need to respect international law and to avoid too quick a resort to violence for fear of making the Middle East still more unstable. Putin’s never struck me as a particularly nice piece of work, but nor have I ever considered him dumb; by taking a position so insincere all he does is prove just how unappealing he really is.

This isn’t to say that it’s entirely impossible that the rebels were to blame, even if they’re not known to have any chemical weapons, while Assad has huge stocks of them. It just seems extremely unlikely.

But it isn’t the change in Putin’s position or Assad’s that’s truly breathtaking. It’s the change in Obama’s.

... why did he need such pushing? And by such people?
John Kerry had always struck me as rather an admirable figure. But these last few weeks he’s been jingoistic to quite Dubya-like levels. It terrified me when he was asked what Assad had to do to avoid a missile strike. Kerry replied that Assad had to hand over his entire chemical weapons stock within a week, and added ‘he isn’t about to do that.’ This was worryingly like the runup to the Iraq war, when US spokesmen talked about setting the bar so high Saddam Hussein couldn’t jump it: they wanted war at any price.

Obama, however, has been little better than Kerry. Banging the drum for war as though only if he used weapons would he be making his point. He seemed to have fallen for temptation to belive that if you control the most powerful military force on earth, you really have to use it if only to justify your existence. All that’s needed is a pretext and Assad had provided one.

But now suddenly even Obama has changed his tune. He remains sceptical of Assad’s motives, and even of Putin’s, and keeping your pinch of salt large strikes me as highly advisable with those two (one ought also take a long spoon to dine with them). However, Obama’s prepared to give this diplomatic initiative a chance to prove itself or fail before he opens fire.

Don’t get me wrong. I think if anyone deserves a missile on his head it’s Assad. Probably Putin too, if only on behalf of Pussy Riot. But we don’t fire on Putin because the repercussions would be far too terrible. No one on the hawk’s side seems to be putting any effort into showing that the consequences of an attack on Assad would be wholly good either. In any case, it’s most unlikely that Assad
’s head would be caught by a cruise missile, though a great many innocent civilians probably would be. His capacity to wage war on his people would probably not be greatly reduced. Meanwhile some very nasty elements on the rebel side would be massively strengthened.

It’s true that by not helping the more amenable rebels we may be weakening them with respect to the extremists. There are always difficult judgement calls to make in situations this complex. But don’t you have to be pretty sure things are going to work out before you take a chance on killing a lot of people? A great deal more sure than we are today?

So I’m delighted that Obama is at least prepared to consider a non-military solution. And I love the irony that though he’s someone for whom I retain residual affection, on this occasion it’s two throughly unpleasant individuals, Putin and Assad, who’ve knocked some good sense into him at last.

Though let’s not forget one other, much more decent man, who also played his role: Ed Miliband. As leader of the Labour Party and of the parliamentary opposition in Britain, he played a key role in preventing Britain immediately opting for military action alongside the US. Things unravelled for the hawks from that point on, taking us to our present more rational state.

Not a bad achievement, on the global stage, for a mere leader of the British opposition. It makes you wonder what he could achieve as Prime Minister. And makes me all the more anxious to see him win that job.

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