American Power in the Age of R2P

OpenCanada talked to Bruce Jentleson about the clash between old weapons and new norms currently playing out in Syria.
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September 25, 2013

Earlier this month,Dr. Bruce Jentleson, Professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, delivered the 2013 Woods Lecture at the Munk School of Global Affairs. Titled The Obama Administration and R2P: Progress, Problems, and Prospects, it would have been difficult to choose a more timely topic. Two recent developments in the Middle East – President Obama's decision to pursue the transfer of chemical weapons out of Syria instead of launching a military strike against the country and Iranian President Rouhani's decision to intensify the conciliatory signals he has been sending to the United States and the West – now confront the United States. OpenCanada spoke to Dr. Jentleson about the implications of the chemical weapons attack in Syria and the international response, and the evolving state of U.S.-Iran relations.

Just a few weeks ago, the United States was clearly considering a military strike on Syria. You commented then that President Obama was right to be moving toward taking military action against the Assad regime. Now the military option has been shelved, at least for the time being. Do you think Obama is wrong to have chosen a diplomatic alternative? 

My position on a possible military intervention reflected my belief at the time that a limited military strike against the Assad regime for using chemical weapons was the right thing to do. But once the decision to intervene got dragged out, the negatives started to outweigh the positives, as far as the practicalities were concerned.

Once the immediate window for a military strike began to close, which happened as soon as the president chose to delay and take the decision to Congress, the possibility of taking limited military action that had a solid chance of avoiding civilian casualties narrowed considerably. The delay gave Assad plenty of time to put innocent women and children at sites likely to be targeted by the United States.

The situation that faced the Obama administration immediately following the revelations of the chemical weapons attacks in Syria is difficult to compare to the one only two weeks later, when the weapons transfer proposal was put on the table. The military option was no longer a good option but more importantly, a diplomatic alternative was visible, finally, because Russia, after two and a half years of refusing to cooperate, decided it was at least somewhat willing to engage with Obama on Syria. 

Are you concerned that in pursuing this diplomatic alternative, Obama has weakened the Responsibility to Protect norm?

I think that the situation in Syria justifies R2P, but that the reality is that it just won't fly for a single country like the United States to invoke R2P on its own. I think what has weakened R2P is the failure of the international community to come together and act in a way that is consistent with R2P, to really try to protect the Syrian people.

The essence of R2P is its requirement that the international community fulfill its responsibility to protect people within states from mass atrocities at the hands of their own governments. The international community has managed civilian protection pretty well in relation to inter-state conflicts but not so well for intra-state ones; this has to do mostly with the challenge that collectively invoking R2P poses to the international community.

What do you think the rhetoric used to “sell intervention” by the Obama administration revealed about its opinion on intervention?

It showed that the United States supports protection of civilians from mass atrocities. But I think the administration is also cautious of over-embracing R2P, which is good, because doing so is counter-productive; it feeds into views around the world which, whether I agree with them or not, are somewhat understandable – basically that the United States has the power to do what it wants, when it wants. R2P supporters need to be careful that they don't totally smother the norm with their own hug, so to speak.

What about the reactions of the American people to Obama’s humanitarian argument and references to R2P – were they largely sympathetic? Where did the American public come down on military intervention?

In terms of American public opinion on intervention generally, you have to distinguish between political support and political acceptance, because it’s more about the latter than the former. You're never going to see 60 percent of any public say "yes, let's go to war to defend people in some other part of the world." It just doesn’t work that way, particularly in the United States following more than a decade of involvement in overseas wars.

On Syria specifically, we did see polls in the aftermath of the use of chemical weapons that showed over 40 percent of people were prepared to support a limited military strike, as an imposition of costs for that action. That’s fairly significant, especially as that was before the president had even said he wanted to intervene, which normally triggers a “rally-around-the-flag” type effect in the polls.

In a lot of the research I've done over the years, I’ve found the American public to be more willing to support the use of force to restrain aggression than for regime change. With Syria, we didn’t see support for getting militarily involved in a civil war, but initially we did see some support for a possible action intended to restrain aggression. It was only once it became clear to the American public that the president really wasn't sure he wanted to launch a strike that support dropped off.

The other norm at issue in the Syria situation is obviously that prohibiting the use of chemical weapons. Do you think the ‘chemical weapons taboo’ has been undermined by Obama’s decision to switch over to a diplomatic track?

If this diplomatic strategy succeeds, that is, if Syria gives up its chemical weapons and signs the Chemical Weapons Convention, which it has refused to do for decades, I think Obama’s decision not to go ahead with a military strike will ultimately strengthen the chemical weapons regime. Moreover, if the military strike had gone ahead and complicated the situation further, the chemical weapons regime would not be any better off.

The goal now should be to show that the international community is serious about responding to the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Now that Obama has decided to back the transfer of Syria’s chemical weapons to Russia, it is very important that the effort to do so succeeds.

What would indicate to you, in these early days, that the effort is likely to succeed?

Success to me would look like the Syrian government credibly accounting for the weapons in its possession. The Assad regime needs to provide information that “passes the laugh test” so to speak, and to facilitate the process of inspection and removal. It will take a long, long time to get this done and there are probably going to be lots of bumps along the way. I’m not sure that we will be able to guarantee that everything is removed – maybe not ever, and surely not very quickly.

So we won’t really know the full effect on the chemical weapons norm until the strategy gets underway. The fact that they were used is of course a problem in and of itself, but if the diplomatic strategy succeeds, I think the chemical weapons regime will end up somewhat strengthened.

Iran’s leadership has no doubt been paying close attention to the situation in Syria. What kind of lessons do you think Iran may be drawing from Obama’s decision to switch onto a diplomatic track?

Firstly I should say that unlike some, I don’t see the recent opening of opportunities in both Syria and Iran as tightly connected. Iran is on its own trajectory; what's happening in Iran would in all likelihood be happening even if the Syria situation hadn’t changed. What we're seeing in Iran, in my opinion, is the effect of the multilateral sanctions that have been imposed, particularly over the last three to four years.

Sanctions – and not only on oil but the financial sanctions – have been quite effective. The clerics are realizing that to sustain the Islamic Republic, Iran needs to be brought back into the international economy. Moreover, there is a growing sense among the leadership of Iran that internal support for their rule is weakening, and that the legitimacy and viability of their regime is at stake. I think generational change has also weakened the degree of ideological buy-in, and the utility of the American great Satan is less than it was. There are a lot of factors indicating to Iran’s leadership that the continuation of their rule will depend upon a degree of reform, which makes this a critical moment for America’s Iran strategy.

When it comes to U.S. policy on Iran, a lot of people argue that America should err on the side of caution – that it shouldn’t give too much because Iran could be bluffing, attempting to ease the burden of sanctions without slowing its nuclear program. This could prove to be true, but we also have to think about the opportunities that exist in this moment. Rouhani has sent quite a few conciliatory signals and I think it would be wrong for the United States, Israel, and the West generally to keep saying "I need more before I can take you seriously."

So what would you like to see now, strategy-wise?

The strategy now has to involve not giving too much for too little, but also not giving too little for too much. And we don’t have to deal in extremes. Take sanctions, for example. We have the option of implementing a phased process where in return for some agreements from the Iranians, certain international sanctions are suspended; if and when the Iranians take the next step, sanctions can be lifted instead of just suspended. I think we need to take what the Iranians are doing very seriously right now – I don't think they’re simply on a charm offensive. I think that there is an opportunity here to start moving towards a very different relationship with Iran.

Obama seems to be making headway on not one but two problems, both of which seemed intractable just a few weeks ago. How much of the progress on Iran and Syria has been accidental versus calculated?

I think in Syria it's been more accidental. You can see that in how all that’s really happened is we have gotten out of one particular, specific crisis within the larger constellation of the whole Syrian civil war. Opposition elements are not happy about the transfer and they say we have to deal with Assad. The chemical weapons inspectors may face possible attacks from the opposition. So I think while we may have gotten out of a tight situation, the outcome isn’t ideal, and the bigger problem of the civil war remains.

On Iran, I wouldn’t say that the strategy was perfectly calibrated to bring us to this point, but the basic decision that the Obama administration made when it came to office in 2009 to work closely and multilaterally on the Iran nuclear issue, including trying to leverage UN Security Council resolutions and exert economic pressure on Iran, has generated momentum. Sanctions and generational change to me are the two key factors that have led the Iranians to where they are.

And so I think you can say that on Iran, U.S. strategy, at least the overall thrust, has been on the right track. On Syria, I think we've got much more wrong than we've gotten right.

We’ve been talking about what America has and hasn’t done in the Middle East, implying that it can actually still do a fair bit. Do you think there is a general tendency within the United States to overestimate or underestimate America's power to shape events there?

I think there is more overestimation than underestimation at the moment. Take the Iranian sanctions, for example. They have taken a lot of work with partners – the Russian, the Chinese, the Europeans, as well as India and Turkey. The United States wouldn’t get too far by trying to assert its power over Iran; we don't have much trade with them, and whatever we did, if the Russians, Chinese, India, or others with large energy reserves around the world didn’t like it, then it wouldn't work.

There are very few, if any, issues anymore that the United States has what one might call the 51 percent of the power necessary to make things happen on its own. There were a lot more of those during the Cold War. Now in most cases we have – if we want to keep thinking about it in terms of numbers – 37 percent, maybe 41 percent, which means we have to build partnerships.

And those partnerships really need to be genuine partnerships. Countries around the world are not interested in 'partnerships' that end up translating as “you lead and I follow”. America’s partners want to be recognized as such – they want their own politics and national interests to be taken into account.

We need to recognize that power dynamics in the 21st century have changed, but that it is still the case that when United States does not take the lead in pushing for action, whether on Syria or Iran or any other issue, then action is much less likely to happen.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.