Pivoting between action and indecision over Syria

Pivoting between action and indecision over Syria

United States President Barack Obama's surprising decision to postpone his planned military strike against Syria by at least a week while he consults Congress is undoubtedly risky.

The US Congress may withhold support. The President also risks appearing weak. Even if the military operation finally goes ahead, it would come a full month after the Syrian atrocities, so it will be dismissed as just pointless revenge.

Yet there are also opportunities in Mr Obama's gamble. The extra time gained could be used to restart negotiations with Russia and China. Evidence from United Nations investigators in Syria would also become available.

And, once armed with congressional approval, the US President will have the possibility of examining a wider range of military options against Syria.

Either way, the diplomatic frenzy unleashed by the Syrian crisis has already created a new strategic reality which, although imperceptible for now, will have a great impact on global security arrangements long after the Syrian episode is consigned to history.

The most significant development is the demise of the knee-jerk impulse to use force in order to solve international problems, an impulse which has governed the conduct of foreign policy of key Western nations.

This can be traced back to the end of the Cold War, to the triumphant period when the West appeared to be dominant and "history" itself allegedly "ended".

The number of countries afflicted by this syndrome was never very big. It consisted of a clutch of mainly English-speaking nations with the occasional addition of a few other European states.

But it was led by the US and frequently pretended to stand for the "international community", that mythical beast whose heart and brain were located somewhere between the Pentagon and the White House.

It was up to this group to decide which nations deserved to be zapped, bombed or occupied because their behaviour "outraged the international community", which ones could just be ignored and which ones should be placed under a quarantine of economic sanctions.

It would be wrong to claim that this was a purely selfish or immoral enterprise. On most occasions, this self-appointed group of nations acted out of genuine humanitarian concerns.

It also frequently did so with wanton disregard for established forms of international law and, sometimes, even its substance - out of the 10 operations mounted by the US military over the past 25 years, only three were pre-authorised by the UN Security Council.

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