The only people who will be surprised (or scandalized) by the muddiness of American foreign policy in the Syrian crisis are those who are unfamiliar with diplomatic history. Which is to say that the only people who will be upset are the vast majority, at least the vast majority of pundits. When people complain that nobody learns anything from history, they usually have in mind some substantive lesson unlearned; but it seems to me that what people don’t learn from history is something rather more general. They don’t get the texture of how things happen. In particular they don’t absorb two basic facts:
1. People have to live every hour, day, week, month, year, decade, and century of human life. It isn’t that the longue duree is necessarily more important than histoire événementielle, but that the periods between the famous events are sequences of events that aren’t experienced as inconsequential by the participants even if they quickly disappear from public consciousness. The fact we generally aren’t interested in the parenchyma of history doesn’t mean you can get from Monday to Wednesday without going through Tuesday. The politicians, generals, and diplomats of the past could never be sure which of their words and actions would matter and got gray hair and hypertension over crises that even PhD candidates have long since forgotten. Of course every happening hyped on the Huffington report is not the Defenestration of Prague or the Assassination of the Archduke, but nobody can be sure about that at the time and, anyhow, they still have to get up in the morning.
2. Relations between nations are mostly made up of trial balloons, misunderstandings, kicking the can down the road, playing to the newspapers, chest thumping, flattery, brag, bluff, and willful obfuscation. Muddle is the métier of the diplomatic corps, always has been, always will be. Or if somebody can point me to an important historical passage where one side or the other had a definite plan and carried it out decisively without lots of backing and filling, I’d be obliged if they’d tell me about it.* A couple of squirrels taking turns chasing each other around a tree trunk is a pretty good first order model of international relations, not surprisingly, after all, because international relations are just mammalian behavior carried out on a very large tree.
If you look at what happened over the last couple of weeks as a typical diplomatic sequence, the administration’s performance looks pretty good. I wrote earlier that I didn’t think Obama wanted a war and it appears I was right. In this affair and also in Libya he acted rather like any number of 19th Century statesmen who were pushed towards intervening in some Balkan hellhole by the newspapers and the hawks in the irresponsible domestic opposition. Success under these circumstances is damage limitation by minimizing the scale of military action or, even better, resolving the issue through great power negotiations.
That said, I don’t think for a minute that John Kerry was playing 11-dimensional chess when he suggested that Assad could avoid being attacked by agreeing to give up his chemical weapons. He simply lucked out, lucked out, that is, assuming that the current stand-down of tensions doesn’t turn into some other kind of debacle. It’s just that I figure a skillful diplomat is rather like Maxwell’s demon, an agent who exploits random fluctuations to achieve his goal, which, in this case, is to avoid useless and destructive military action while limiting the freedom of action of Syria’s government. One can only hope that the administration can blunder into a similar happy outcome in its relations with Iran. Enough mistakes and Obama may yet earn that Nobel Prize.
* The only candidate that comes to mind is the Bush Administration’s single-minded determination to invade Iraq. Chaney and company knew what they wanted and got it. Maybe the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia in August 1914 also counts since it was designed to make war inevitable and worked perfectly.