Syria has presented an interesting conundrum for the US. For over 2 years, charming Syrian dictator who is also a ruthless murderer, Bashar al Assad has laid siege upon his own people and has systematically massacred over 100,000 civilians, and millions have become refuges. World watches helplessly. What is a US president to do? Welcome to the 21st century, where American mindset will prove lacking, unless we embrace complexity and uncertainty.
We in the US, like clear problems that have clear solutions. We do not like shades of gray. We like our leaders to be decisive, not reflective. And we just do not understand the complexities that exist in many parts of the world, except in a perfunctory manner. For instance, we can rattle off statistics about how many languages are spoken in certain parts of the world; we can talk about gender differences in parts of the world; we can speak about class dynamics. What we do not understand are the underlying reasons that make it so; the stakeholders who want to preserve the status quo and why; those who clamor for change and how they are in no way different from any of us in the US, in terms of their tech savvyness, their English speaking skills, and who may be more savvy in terms of their cultural insights.
President Obama has been criticized for the “zig-zag” nature of his policy, in response to Syria. I will however, go out on a limb, and say that this is exactly what we need from our leader in the new, global, multicultural world fraught with enormous complexities and serious challenges; a world that does not present clear problems and one that is much less ready for clear, decisive solutions. This is not a world where one sentence rhetoric that says, let us capture Bin Laden “dead or alive” will work.
In fact just to make my point with clarity that the Americans so love, I am going to quote some Bushisms below.
“Removing Saddam Hussein was the right decision early in my presidency, it is the right decision now, and it will be the right decision ever.” –George W. Bush, Washington, D.C., March 12, 2008
“Wait a minute. What did you just say? You’re predicting $4-a-gallon gas? … That’s interesting. I hadn’t heard that.” –George W. Bush, Washington, D.C., Feb. 28, 2008
“Let’s make sure that there is certainty during uncertain times in our economy.” — George W. Bush, Washington, D.C., June 2, 2008
“Oftentimes people ask me, ‘Why is it that you’re so focused on helping the hungry and diseased in strange parts of the world?'” –George W. Bush, Washington, D.C., April 18, 2008
The thing is that world is not so strange to a lot of people who not only have stepped out of their homes and their comfort zones and traveled places and mingled with people vastly different from them. Additionally, with technology people can make little google guy on street view walk and go places for them and people do research on wikipedia and they use skype, telepresene, go to meeting, webex and other technologies to bring the world closer and there are no far-away, “strange” places. The thing is that removing any dictator or an abuser of human rights is neither a fully right decision and nor is it a completely wrong one.
Consider the competing priorities that the President of the US must manage. In this new world, the US cannot act as a cop and neither can the US remain a helpless bystander. The US President, commander-in-chief of the armed forces cannot simply ignore Assad’s blatant refusal to follow the rules previously agreed upon by 190 odd countries, regarding the ban of chemical weapons. But neither can the President of the US ignore the fact that Americans are tired with war and they do not want their leader calling them to make sacrifices, especially in the face of so much uncertainty. The US cannot ignore the moral imperative to intervene; if the US does not escort the moderates now than it is less likely we will find them later. Nor can the US ignore the national interest argument of Assad gone mad and his people pouring into the neighboring regions; more countries and groups may stockpile such weapons and use them and someday they could be used against the US.
President Obama’s considered response – actually responses, his willingness to come forth and present the argument to the American people, his reluctance to jump into war, his willingness to get support from the Congress, his flexibility to change the course of military action, all this is precisely what we need in a leader who must weigh the competing complexities, not just once, but on a daily and hourly basis. And despite this, the President is neither waffling, nor has run out of options.
President Obama has warned the Syrian dictator, over and over that the world is watching and keeping track of his human rights abuses. Assad was warned regarding the use of chemical weapons. The president has gone and discussed with the world leaders; though the countries do not want to intervene, there is tremendous tacit support in the world, and huge disapproval of Assad’s actions. The president has gotten solid evidence of use of chemical weapons by Assad, has sought approval from the Congress for military strike, and the president has explained to American people and ensured us that there will be no boots on the ground, that we will not be called upon to make significant sacrifices, when we have our own priorities and challenges to deal with. And now, another dictator, Vladimir Putin has come forth, to help the process of negotiation and Mr. Obama has also entertained that. At this point Mr. Obama has built the most solid case that if he uses military might, it will only be after he has tried every other option and the objective will be to strike strategically Assad’s control and command posts, with an objective to weaken him, without putting boots on the ground.
Now let us also answer those who say that military strike to weaken Assad is an action that is too little, too late. Middle East is a complex region. There are many voices, many stakeholders; there are many who suffer deeply and there are many who bestow deep suffering onto others. Going into that region with an idea to fix something, to take a dictator out, to support a friend, to hurt a foe, to broker a peace, will never have intended consequence because every action from outside, generates equal and opposite reaction from inside. However, what we can do is to give a blow to anyone flaunting violating an agreed upon treaty, a few precise air strikes that send a strong message that you can get away with only so much before the world will take notice of your actions and send a punishing message. This action, while conveying a message to Assad, also would convey a message to the rebels that if they stay focused and disciplined than the world will not completely forget them and they have friends outside who are committed to seeing the atrocities stopped. It is nice to have moderate friends in that region. It would give a psychological boost to the rebels and we would hope that some of them are moderate. Strategically, it would keep the situation from spiraling completely out of balance, a situation where Assad’s side could get so powerful that they may completely wipe out the other side from every raising its head.
We know what happens in situations that spiral out of balance. The examples are many and they are heartbreaking – Armenian genocide by the Ottoman Turks, after World War I; rape of Nanking, China, by the Japanese in 1937; atrocities against the Jews in Nazi Germany, before the end of world war II; civil war that wiped out its entire educated population, in Cambodia, in 1970s by Pol Pot led Khmer Rouge; Muslim genocide in Kosovo in 1990s, under the leadership of all too powerful Slobodan Milosevic; genocide and slaughter of the Tutsis by the powerful Hutus in Rawanda, in mid-1990s. Atrocities committed by Assad regime are nearing that kind of epic proportions. And he has one chance now to deliver and destroy his chemical weapons.
Vladimir Putin has also made a mockery of human rights in Russia. And now he has an opportunity to emerge as a politician of some stature, not just by sending in an op-ed piece, obviously written by someone else; but by bringing value to the table in getting Syria to hand over its chemical weapons stockpiles over to the international community. Syria, better pay heed, that the country that cherishes democracy, seeks to stop human rights abuses, embraces the weak, and the children, is not soft at its core; it has mettle and is committed to its principles and it will not sit idly watching this ruthless man massacre innocent children. And as for us, to operate more effectively in the complex, smaller, new world, we better learn to become comfortable with lack of certainty, fuzziness and shades of gray; we’d better learn some flexibility and adaptability; and we’d better understand that we live in a global community. If TB and Bird Flu can travel across countries with great speed, so can chemical and biological weapons, and there is a reason that most of the world has made a pact to banish such weapons of mass destruction.