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Comes With the Territory

September 15, 2013

“I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straight forward and trustworthy and we had a very good dialogue.  I was able to get a sense of his soul…I wouldn’t have invited him to the ranch if I did not trust him.”
– George W. Bush talking about Vladimir Putin, June 16, 2001

The U.S. and Russia have now agreed on an approach to the chemical weapons in Syria.  Their proposed framework next goes to the United Nations for approval and resolution by the fifteen-member Security Council.  In general, the agreement calls for the Syrian government to provide a full accounting of the chemical weapons stockpile within a week and for a full inspection by the U.N. by the end of November.  In addition, the agreement requires all production equipment to be destroyed by then.

Syria’s ruler, Bashar al-Assad, has said that the government will give up its weapons and that it will also join the international Chemical Weapons Convention (“CWC”).  The CWC is an arms control agreement signed by one hundred and ninety countries.  Syria, who has been stockpiling chemical weapons since 1968, is one of eight countries that has not signed the CWC.  It has previously refused to sign the CWC with the claim that the chemical weapons are their best defense against security threats from Israel.

How the inspection can be completed is a whole other matter.  There is no end in sight for the ongoing civil war or a cease fire planned for the inspectors to complete their work.  Syria is about the size of the state of Washington, Assad has spread his weapons throughout the country and he cannot be trusted to facilitate a comprehensive search.

Many Americans and people around the world are relieved that the U.S. has held off the bombing that Barack Obama started threatening over a year ago, when he declared that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that could not be crossed without consequences.  At the end of August, Obama declared that it was time for the U.S. to take military action in Syria, because the evidence was clear that the government was responsible for chemical weapons attacks in the war.

France and the United Kingdom were quick to support Obama’s call to arms.  The U.K. quickly dropped out however, when the House of Commons voted consistent with their constituencies’ views against the country’s military involvement.  French President Francois Hollande remains ready to commit the French military however, in spite of opposition from public opinion.boycott france

France, you may remember, was ridiculed as cowards by many here in the U.S. when George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were beating the war drums to go to Iraq.  It was the target of many jokes and condemnations.  People were outraged that the French were not supportive of the war  and dismissed them as ungrateful cowards.  Bill O’Reilly and others over at Fox encouraged boycotting all things French because they wanted to find another way.  A March 2003 Fox poll showed that forty percent supported the boycott.

french mustard

French’s mustard, an American product going back to 1904, tried to protect itself from a boycott with a March 2003 statement that “the only thing French about French’s mustard is the name.”

Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives voted 215-6 in favor of an October 2002 bill that gave unfettered sanction to Bush to prosecute the war.  The resolution allowed the president to “…use the armed forces of the United States as he determines necessary and appropriate in order to defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq.”  They worked hard to set things straight with the French as well.  In early 2003, they circled the wagons with a 219-2 vote to embarrass the country’s oldest ally by passing a bill that no longer required diplomats with defense-related duties to have served as either a brigadier general or rear admiral.  Perhaps they thought that there was no use sending our most experienced professionals to work with such dastardly fools.  And in a move which appears to have come right out of the high school jocks’ playbook, they went down to their cafeteria and removed the word “French” from its breakfast and lunch menu.  They could now puff out their chest when they ordered “freedom toast and eggs” with their morning coffee or Coke and “freedom fries” with their burger at lunch.  It only seemed right when Air Force One, our country’s flagship airplane, had also purged its menu.  You can’t make this stuff up.


The crosses of Lafayette, California in memory of US troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Of course, this was at a time of full hysteria and obfuscation.  It seemed that the Bush Administration couldn’t move fast enough to sell the war.  They pitched the invasion as a “cakewalk” (their word, not mine) with a $50-$60 billion cost that would be shared by the “coalition of the willing.”  Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told us it would all be over in short order.  This was the guidance the country received for the entanglement that cost our treasury multiples of their opening bid, took 4,486 American lives and sent another 32,223 home injured .  A recent estimate shows that the war’s cost to-date is $1.7 trillion with another $400 million in future costs to care for our veterans.

The Bush administration’s campaign for war worked.  In a poll performed by Gallup the week before the first strikes, sixty-four percent were supportive.  A March 13, 2003 Fox News poll found that seventy-one percent agreed that it was “time to get it over with in Iraq” and that forty-four percent would have a less favorable view of Bush if he consented to the France’s proposal to allow the UN inspectors another six months to find the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.  Remember, this was when the UN inspection team had reported that it needed more time to complete their work, but at that point that they had found “no evidence” of the mobile biological production systems Colin Powell displayed to the world the month before.  They also reported that “we have found to date no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear weapons program in Iraq.”   Bush was ready to proceed and rejected the appeal for more time.

Ten years later, the Obama’s messaging has been ineffective.  Here they have simply taken the stance that chemical weapons cannot be tolerated, no matter what.  Simple enough, right?  Isn’t that why the international community developed the CWC?  Still, they have little support to do anything about it.  How times have changed since 2003.

Team Obama has bungled it at points along the way.  Nobody wants an all-out war, but it’s hard to see how the surgical and limited bombing they have described can work.  Were they really prepared to go ahead without congressional approval and if so, why did they request a vote?  Take issue with this or any other perceived misstep, but gathering support for these type of ventures is an uphill battle no matter how well the communications might have been managed.  Without the blind support that Bush received from the Republicans and many Democrats, it will not be easy for Obama to convince the public at large that the bombs should fly again.

While the Republicans considered the Iraq war essential, they have have now backed off when it comes to Syria.  A commitment to petty politics and a dislike for Obama fuels much of their opposition.  At the same time that their venom for the president affects their policy decisions and votes on the floor, their affection for Ronald Reagan, whose legacy with chemical weapons is entirely opposite of Obama’s position, attracts them to inane and damaging projects such as naming the ocean waters for him.  Reagan’s administration supported Sadaam Hussein (yes, that Sadaam Hussein) as he waged chemical warfare against the Iranian soldiers and Iranian and Iraqi civilians.  Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is trying to rewrite that history, by arguing that Obama is weak and that Reagan would never have allowed the chemical weapons in Syria.

And of course, a good part of the American public is war-weary.  The ghosts of Iraq and Afghanistan loom – after two long and punishing wars, Americans are not going to get out ahead of Congress on this.


Sixty percent of Americans don’t trust Russia. Fifty-nine percent trust France. May 2012 –

For the entire period of the Syrian civil war, Russia and China have obstructed any effort from the U.S. and others to find a negotiated settlement.  Despite evidence to the contrary, Russia has vigorously denied that it has shipped arms and provided other support to the Assad regime.  Now, in a masterful public relations display, Putin has taken position on the high ground and inserted himself as the broker to find a solution to the chemical weapons in Syria.  While the U. S. and the Russians were negotiating the framework in Geneva, Putin set Ketchum, his high-priced public relations firm, off to work.  The result?  A New York Time op-ed appeal to the American people.  And who can deny the core messages? Adherence to international law, constraints to cross-border aggression, reference to the ongoing chaos and violence in Afghanistan and Iraq and respect for human rights are of course, the core considerations for the challenges Obama is facing.  But to hear it from Putin is striking.  His history is long on intrigue, disregard for free speech and human rights, and other traits of a leader from an undemocratic society.

He seemed to botch an opportunity however, when he decried the notion of “American exceptionalism.”  Wasn’t Ketchum paying attention during the presidential campaign last year when Fox and the like were lambasting Obama over a made-up story that he did not believe that America has a special role in world affairs?  Didn’t they consider that Putin would attract a response from the same noisy and influential crowd? Putin is stuck with that part of his statement – other points from the NYT piece will not carry forward in this country.  But who knows?  Maybe it was just a cloak and the message was really meant for consumption in the region, anyhow.  Let us get worked up into a lather over here about the choice of words while he’s building public support in Europe and the Middle East for a Russian role in Syria.

Bush abandoned his early views on Putin, telling him that he was “cold-blooded” and expressing disappointment that Putin did not fully engage in his “freedom agenda.”  It’s been said that Obama and Putin don’t have a strong working relationship.  Perhaps with the benefit of watching Bush deal with Putin or by his own nature and caution, Obama was not drawn to Putin in the same way.  At times, Putin has been dismissive of Obama as well.

For me, success includes destroying the chemical weapons, prosecution of those responsible for the chemical weapons attacks and neutralizing Al Queda and other jihadi elements.  All without war.  It’s a large scope and it doesn’t seem that this is what either Obama or Putin are contemplating right now.  I have no idea how it can be done.  I don’t think they do either, but neither of them have a chance at any favorable outcomes unless they’re in it together.  Comes with the territory, I say.  Let’s hope for the best.

  1. That’s quite a wish list, my friend. I have no idea how it can be done either. If they can get this first step done though, without the usual delay and acrimony associated with US/Russian relations, maybe – just maybe – we can hope for more from your list.


  2. It’s a mess.


  3. A well thought out piece, Bruce. Any solution that works and can avoid another war at the present seems desirable. Ultimately, I think the only solution is to leave nationalism behind. –Curt


  4. It may be a lot to ask, but it certainly is worth asking. None of us wants war. thank you for a well constructed piece on peace. LMA


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