Although the president highlighted the United States’ willingness to pursue diplomatic efforts in Syria, he also spent much of his Tuesday night address making the case for why military action would be justified. (Pool / Getty)

War, Interrupted

Peace advocates remain cautious as Obama signals diplomatic turn on Syria.

BY Cole Stangler

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Though opponents to intervention certainly have cause for relief, their celebrations may ultimately be short-lived.

On Tuesday night, President Obama announced his intentions to postpone a vote in Congress on the authorization for use of military force in Syria.

For anti-war advocates, the administration’s apparent prioritization of diplomatic efforts over military force—just days after a U.S.-led strike on Syria seemed imminent—is certainly good news.

Organizers say that the administration’s turn to diplomacy reflects, in part, the political impasse it has faced in drumming up Congressional support for an unpopular war.

“We know that it was going to be very close in the Senate, and they didn’t have the votes in the House,” says Paul Kawika Martin, political and communications director at Peace Action. “So this chance for diplomacy came at a good time for them. It certainly gives them a political out. And obviously we support this.”

“There was strong opposition in Congress and I think that that opposition really forced the administration to take a second look at the diplomatic option to rethink where they were,” says Stephen Miles, coalition coordinator at Win Without War, a progressive anti-war coalition that has lobbied and organized against bombing Syria.  

Just hours before Obama’s speech, the Syrian foreign ministry also announced that it was committed to a Russian proposal to place its chemical weapons arsenal under international control and to join the international convention prohibiting the use of such of weapons.

According to the president’s address, Secretary of State John Kerry will be meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, on Thursday to discuss the proposal. The United States will also be working with the other four permanent members of the U.N. Security Council—France, the United Kingdom, China and Russia—to craft a UN resolution allowing for the international seizure and eventual destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.

The diplomatic route seems to have opened up accidentally on Monday when John Kerry suggested that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could avoid an attack by turning “over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week.” The State Department later walked back Kerry’s comments, which it said were only part of a “rhetorical argument.” But the Russian foreign ministry quickly jumped on the proposal, which then earned the support of Damascus. 

Though opponents to intervention certainly have cause for relief, their celebrations may ultimately be short-lived. Even as the president highlighted the United States’ willingness to pursue diplomatic efforts, he also spent much of his address making the case for why military action would be justified should those efforts fail.

“And so, to my friends on the Right, I ask you to reconcile your commitment to America’s military might with a failure to act when a cause is so plainly just. To my friends on the Left, I ask you to reconcile your belief in freedom and dignity for all people with those images of children writhing in pain, and going still on a cold hospital floor. For sometimes resolutions and statements of condemnation are simply not enough,” the president said. “America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act.”

Many peace advocates agree that President Obama’s current concession to diplomacy is no guarantee of avoiding an eventual strike.

“We’re heading in the right direction but we’re not out of danger yet,” says Miles. “If this particular [Russian] proposal that’s going forward right now doesn’t succeed, there are other [diplomatic] options, but the pressure will clearly come right back to Congress to pass something to authorize military action. So I think we’re far from out of the woods yet.”

In particular, Miles warns of two proposals generating “lots of buzz on Capitol Hill”—one in the Senate and one in the House—that would “create new red lines for the use of military force.” If passed, these bills would open the door for military intervention should diplomatic efforts fail.   

The Senate proposal, which is being formulated by longtime Syria hawks John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) in addition to Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), would reportedly authorize military force if chemical weapons are not removed from Syria within a certain period of time.

“This is kind of a two-fer,” Levin told the New York Times on Tuesday. “It’s a way of keeping the pressure on Syria and on Russia to get rid of chemical weapons, which is the goal of the whole effort, and second, if they fail, it would keep the authorization to launch a strike.”

Meanwhile, in the House, Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) have put forward a similar resolution that would enable the United States to use military force if the president certifies to Congress that “there is no credible plan to place the Syrian chemical weapons stockpile under verifiable international control.” 

Nevertheless, with a solid majority in Congress opposed to the broader bombing authorization first proposed by the President, it is unclear how much traction these proposals would receive.

In the meantime, the White House will be scaling back its “full-court press” on Congress to drum up war support—at least until the administration determines that military intervention is necessary, after all.

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Cole Stangler writes about labor and the environment. His reporting has also appeared in The Nation, VICE, The New Republic and International Business Times. He lives in Paris, France. He can be reached at cole[at]inthesetimes.com. Follow him @colestangler.

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