If you’re an average American and are confused and worried about our getting embroiled in a no-win Syrian civil war, you’re right to be concerned. It means you’re paying attention.
But if you’re a member of Congress or a senator who’s still wondering whether to grant President Barack Obama the authority to use force to deter Syrian President Bashar Assad from again murdering hundreds of his people with poison gas, it now makes sense to take a timeout.
That also means you’re paying attention.
A new situation has been created in the past two days by the Russian offer — embraced by Obama, all of our major allies and China, but still only vaguely accepted by Syria — for Syria to turn over its stockpiles of poison gas to international control.
Let’s have no illusion. There’s still a real possibility that the Russians and Syrians are just stalling and will fudge in the end, and even if one or both are serious, there are formidable logistical and political obstacles to securing Syria’s chemical weapons swiftly and completely.
Part of me wonders: Has anyone really thought all this through?
But part of me also has to acknowledge that if such a Syrian surrender of poison gas were implemented — still a big if — it would be a decent end to this near-term crisis. The global taboo on poison gas would be upheld, and America would not have to get embroiled in a shooting war in Syria.
In that context, I think it is worth Obama and Congress threatening to schedule a vote to endorse Obama’s threat of force — if the Syrians and Russians don’t act in good faith — but not schedule a vote right now.
Don’t worry, I know how absurd that sounds. But by “threatening to threaten,” Obama would retain leverage to keep the Syrians and Russians focused on implementing any agreement — but without having to test Congress’ real willingness to let him fulfill that threat. Because, if it failed to pass, the Russians and Syrians would have no incentive to move.
If all of this sounds incredibly messy and confusing, it is.
And while Obama and his team have contributed to this mess by way too much loose talk, in fairness, there is also a deep structural reason for it. Obama is dealing with an Arab world that no modern president has had to confront.
Until 2010, the Arab Middle East had been relatively stable for 35 years. The combination of the Cold War, the rise of oil-funded dictators who built strong security states and the peace between Egypt and Israel imposed order.
But the convergence in the 2010s of Arab population explosions, joblessness, environmental degradation, water scarcity, falling oil revenues and the information revolution blew apart governments that once seemed solid — Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq, Libya and Yemen — forcing us now to confront some new and very uncomfortable questions, not just the use of force.
One is this: Are some things true even if George W. Bush believed them?
No one, hawk or dove, wants to see U.S. boots on the ground in Syria, under any conditions. Count me among them.
The only problem is that it is impossible to imagine a solution to the conflict in Syria without some outside force putting boots on the ground. When you get the degree of state and social breakdown that you have in such a multitribal and multisectarian society as Syria, there is no trust with which to govern and rotate power.
Therefore, you need either a midwife or a Mandela or a trusted military (a la Egypt) to referee the transition to a new order. And since Syria has no Mandela and no trusted military, it is going to need an external midwife.
I understand why there are no volunteers, but the U.N. Security Council will eventually have to address this reality, otherwise Syria will become Afghanistan on the Mediterranean.
There are also some uncomfortable questions we need to pose to our Arab allies.
During the Cold War, our fear of communism and dependence on oil made us ready to align with anyone who was with us against the Soviets. We never questioned our Arab allies about what values they were promoting at home.
Well, here is a question we need to start posing: There are reportedly thousands of Arab and Muslim youths who have come from as far away as Australia to join the jihadist militias in Syria fighting to create a Sunni Islamist state there. But how many Arab and Muslim youth have flocked to Syria to fight with the decent elements of the Free Syrian Army for a multisectarian, pluralistic, democratic Syria — that is, the kind of Syria we hope for and envisage?
I have not read of any. Arms purveyors, yes, but not people putting their own lives on the line.
I am glad that Arab Gulf leaders are supporting us publicly (most of them are moderates in the Middle East context), but everyone knows that mosques and charities in those same countries are financing the jihadists.
Attention: With the Soviets and the oil lines gone, Americans today are not going to expend blood and treasure to defend people and places in the Arab world that don’t share our values and are not ready to sacrifice for them. We can’t afford it anymore, and we don’t need to.
So give Obama credit for standing up for an important principle in a chaotic region.
But also give the American people some credit. They’re telling our leaders something important: It’s hard to keep facing down Middle East Hitlers when there are no Churchills on the other side.
Thomas L. Friedman is a New York Times columnist.