Mar 14

Speaking Softly

In the complex world of diplomacy, governments are almost constantly switching between the use of incentives and threats as they try to gain foreign cooperation.  The United States, as an influential global power, has a stake in a broad range of interrelated issues and therefore must play this game extremely carefully.  Unfortunately, as of late, the U.S. approach to many issues has come under criticism from the American media and public.

Syria has presented an especially difficult situation.  When the Obama administration assured the Assad regime that use of chemical weapons in its ongoing conflict would result in harsh consequences, many assumed that the United States was threatening to intervene militarily.  However, such action would almost entirely undermine the administration’s recent efforts to reduce U.S. involvement in the Middle East.  Entering a new conflict just as American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan have shifted to playing a support role would ensure more years of entanglement.

Therefore, when the Syrian government did launch a chemical attack, the administration chose to resolve the issue diplomatically.  Arrangements were made for the entirety of Syria’s chemical weapon stores to be transported from the country and destroyed.  While this move was likely more practical than a military response, which could not have ensured that chemical weapons would not fall into the wrong hands, many viewed it as taking a weak stance.  Delayed deadlines and other problems in exporting the weapons for destruction drew greater criticism.  The administration, however, stood by its decision.  Now, roughly one third of Syria’s chemical weapons have left the country and the rate of exportation has actually increased.

The issue of chemical weapons in Syria illustrated the effectiveness of a diplomatic approach.  Conflict was avoided and, ultimately, a more favorable outcome was the result.  Nevertheless, critics remain.  Many Americans either prefer or are simply used to the past use of direct intervention by the United States.  Making concessions often raises fears that America will appear to be weaker than in the past, trying to appease other nations out of necessity.  However, the reality is that America can act diplomatically because of its clout.

Theodore Roosevelt’s view on foreign policy is often quoted: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”  This is exactly what the Obama administration has been doing.  America’s capabilities, military or otherwise, are well-known.  There is no need to resort to threats in order to assert dominance; most nations recognize that the military option, last resort or not, is always on the table.  Therefore, it is often more advantageous for U.S. officials to take a less threatening approach.  It prevents formation of the idea that the United States is forcing foreign powers to take certain paths and often makes other governments more receptive or willing to bargain without the U.S. having to give up anything.

This tactic was also evident during recent events in Ukraine.  As protests raged throughout the country, the U.S. refrained from direct involvement, moving to support the Ukrainian opposition indirectly through economic options.  This diplomatic approach prevented supporters of the Ukrainian government, specifically Russia, from having evidence to back their claims that Americans were interfering in Ukraine.  It also avoided the concern that always arises when considering military support for revolutionaries: weapons falling into the hands of extremists.

The diplomatic approach continued to work successfully after the protesters took control of their government.  When Russian forces moved into the Crimean region of Ukraine and asserted control over military bases, the U.S. again refrained from military involvement.  Instead, it threatened to levy sanctions against and freeze the assets of Russian officials responsible for the troop movements.  Furthermore, the Obama administration warned of the economic and trade consequences of such action, and made efforts to build European support.

Again, diplomacy was more successful than a military response would have been.  With the Russian currency suffering and the promise of more economic consequences, Russia began allowing Ukrainian military forces to return to their posts and loosening its grip in the Crimean region.  Although this situation is far from being entirely resolved, the events that have already transpired further support the American administration’s recent approach to such issues.

While military responses will undoubtedly be a necessity in the future, the recent efforts to avoid entering a conflict have proven a beneficial tactic.  The use of force should remain a last resort; in most cases, it is entirely effective as a deterrent alone.  Taking the political approach, although sometimes less popular, is ultimately the lowest risk way of pursuing American interests.


Baker, Peter. “Top Russians Face Sanctions by U.S. for Crimea Crisis.” The New York Times 4 Mar. 2014: A1+. Print.
Cumming-Bruce, Nick. “Syria Speeds Its Deliveries of Chemicals for Disposal.” The New York Times 5 Mar. 2014: A4. Print.
Gordon, Michael R. “Kerry Takes Offer of Aid to Ukraine and Pushes Back at Russian Claims.” The New York Times 5 Mar. 2014: A6. Print.

Jan 14

Syria: Choosing a Side

The Syrian Revolution has been making headlines since 2011, growing increasingly complex and unstable as the Assad regime and its Hezbollah allies wage war against a variety of rebel groups, including some linked to terrorist organizations.  Wary of being drawn into another conflict in the Middle East, the U.S. administration has offered selective support to rebels free from the influence of extremists while working toward a diplomatic solution with the Assad government.  However, with international peace talks finally under way, this policy of technical neutrality has changed.

Congress recently made American aid to Syrian rebels official.  Although this means relatively little on the ground considering that the United States has been providing the rebels some form of aid, beginning with monetary support and growing to shipments of small arms, for many months now.  However, it is a decision with significant diplomatic meaning, one that has already upset Assad and his compatriots.

Much as Congress had not technically acknowledged U.S. aid to Syrian freedom fighters before this week, the Assad regime has avoided recognizing its opponents as rebels.  Although Syria is clearly in the midst of a revolution, its leaders maintain that their opponents are terrorists, fighting against the will of the nation rather than for it.  The recognition of and commitment to continued assistance for the rebels is, therefore, about much more than providing weapons.  Congress has, in essence, recognized the legitimacy of the rebels.

Although Russia has been openly supporting the Assad regime, providing money, weapons, and political assistance, the Syrian government views this as an entirely different arrangement.  From their perspective, it is an allegiance between two governments like any other.  By aligning the United States with Syrian rebels, Congress took official action that symbolically elevates the rebellion, showing that it carries the same status as an official government.  This broadens the divide between the United States, which is working to establish a transitional government that would bring an end to Assad’s rule, and the Syrian leadership that refuses to acknowledge that it is truly at war.

Despite the potential for diplomatic backlash, this is a step that the United States needed to take and timed extremely well.  First and foremost, it makes the American position on Syria inescapably clear.  As delegates for the Syrian government attending the current peace talks remain unwilling to budge, the U.S. has responded by digging into its position as well.  Congress has demonstrated that the establishment of a transitional government (which is supposed to be the entire purpose of the talks) is not up for debate.

The act could potentially lead Syria to reconsider its current position on aid as well.  Assad is fighting a war of attrition against his own people; unable to escape from blockaded cities, many innocent civilians are now suffering from malnutrition and related ailments.  Nevertheless, Assad’s representatives have repeatedly denied the United Nations’ request that humanitarian aid be allowed to reach the suffering.  The American decision is a way around the government’s obstinance; if it will deny its people basic necessities, the U.S. will provide that and then some.

Hopefully, the Syrian government will attempt to bargain, finally allowing humanitarian aid missions in exchange for a limit on military assistance to the opposition.  But even if they reject the chance to act diplomatically, aid will still be delivered to the rebels.  The U.S. stance falls short of backing Syrian leaders into a corner, but it will get the job done either politically or practically.

Furthermore, political backlash may not be the worst outcome.  Assad’s delegates have refused to compromise or even discuss the most pressing issues on the table at the peace conference.  Their counterparts representing the revolutionaries, however, have demonstrated much more professional and diplomatic behavior.  It is an ironic and slightly unexpected situation, but it has lent credibility to the rebellion.  Should the representatives from the Syrian government become outraged or begin making accusations, shifting the talks further from the topic of a transitional government, it will only further hurt their case.

The situation in Syria and the conference currently in session are highly intricate in terms of politics, with a large number of stakeholders contributing to their progress.  It is impossible to accurately speculate about the impact of any decision, but from almost any angle it is largely certain that official recognition of U.S. aid to the rebellion will only serve to strengthen the American position.

Skip to toolbar