The Syria crisis has divided opinion in America and around the world on how to deal with dictators who brutally suppress their populations. The debate pitted liberal interventionists against the libertarian left and isolationist conservatives against neo conservatives. Did the US have a responsibility to intervene in a crisis that was spiraling out of control? Was it any of America's business, and did they have the right to intervene unilaterally? While some believed in Obama's good intentions, some saw it as nothing more than naked power politics and further proof that George Bush's America was alive and well.
As events transpired and Russia entered the game, a whole new layer emerged leading many pundits to re-evaluate their initial analysis of Obama's maneuvering. When John Kerry inadvertently announced that the US would not attack Syria if they handed over their chemical weapons, the Kremlin quickly offered to broker a deal and bring Syria to the table. Was this the scenario Obama, a notoriously cautious and strategic thinker, envisioned all along? Andrew Sullivan thinks it is entirely plausible:
Whatever the American president can do to keep Putin in this triumphant mood the better. Roger Ailes was right. If the end-result is that Putin effectively gains responsibility and control over the civil war in Syria, then we should be willing to praise him to the skies. Praise him, just as the far right praises him, for his mastery of power politics – compared with that ninny weakling Obama. Encourage him to think this is a personal and national triumph even more than he does today. Don’t just allow him to seize the limelight – keep that light focused directly on him. If that also requires dumping all over the American president, calling him weak and useless and incapable of matching the chess master from Russia, so be it. Obama can take it. He’s gotten used to being a pinata.
All this apparent national humiliation is worth it. The price Russia will pay for this triumph is ownership of the problem. At some point, it may dawn on him that he hasn’t played Obama. Obama has played him.
It is possible that Sullivan is correct. Obama, it must be remembered, is the first African American President in US history, and he didn't get there by accident. To get to the very top of the political power system in America requires an enormous amount of guile, and for a black man to get the majority of votes in a country where racism is still a part of daily life for many African Americans, it is an astonishing achievement.
However, regardless of whether the events regarding Syria were part of a grand strategy laid out by the Machiavellian Obama, there is a moral element of the debate that must not be swept under the carpet. The fact is, whether or not Obama intended to use force or not is inconsequential from a legal point of view. Unilaterally attacking Syria would have constituted a war crime under international law - in fact the actual act of threatening another country is also illegal. While Obama may never have wanted to use force, the international system was set up to explicitly prevent countries from threatening preemptive attacks.
Most Americans aren't too fussed about international law, and many laugh off the UN as an irrelevant organization that impedes rather than fosters peace. While the US can afford to flout international law without fear of consequence (and it does, more so than most other countries in the western world), the stakes are far higher for the weaker countries. And that is why American flippancy and disregard for international protocol is so detested around the world. Said Bill Maher on his show last Friday:
12 years after 9/11, and amidst yet another debate on whether to bomb yet another Muslim country, America must stop asking the question, "Why do they hate us?" Forget the debate on Syria, we need a debate on why we're always debating whether to bomb someone. Because we're starting to look not so much like the world's policeman, but more like George Zimmerman: itching to use force and then pretending it's because we had no choice.
It seems the Syrians will take the deal on offer and thus avoid a conflict with the US, saving themselves more bloodshed. Obama supporters will say that the ends justify the means - Putin looks good, Syria gets rid of its chemical weapons and the US doesn't commit to another war it cannot afford. But as the founder of the United Nations and a member of the permanent security council, it should also take its obligations seriously and not flout laws it helped create.
There is also the possibility that Obama got incredibly lucky, and had he not been, the US would have gotten itself into a crisis with no real exit strategy. International law was written to prevent nations from crises like this occurring - a fact worth considering given we're destined to have leaders who a) won't be as smart as Obama and b) won't be so damn lucky.