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Friday, 13 September 2013

Why "don't know" is not a good look in a crisis

I used to argue that it would make a welcome change if -- just occasionally -- politicians answered a question with the words: "I don't know." I didn't expect the President of the United States to take me seriously.

Should the US launch a military strike against Syria? Obama: Don't know. Is Russia serious in its chemical weapons initiative? Don't know. What's President Assad up to? Not a clue.

There's a part of me that welcomes such refreshing candour. But to be honest, it's only a very small part of me. For the most part, I bury my head in my hands when the leader of the most powerful nation (yes, still) wears his indecision on his sleeve and displays his anguish for all to see.

I'm delighted that President Obama is a reluctant warrior. I celebrate his evident distaste for waging war. (Mind you, I'd celebrate even more if he were a little less trigger-happy when it comes to authorising drones strikes …)

But is anguish-on-display what we really need from our political leaders? In the words of the commentator Dana Milbank of the Washington Post: "The [Obama] administration’s frequent shifts convey the feeling that it is a spectator observing world affairs … it feels as if the ship of state is bobbing like a cork in international waters."

That is not a good look for an administration that hopes to be taken seriously. "Leading from behind" is all very well -- but it still entails at least a modicum of leadership. To me, the message from Washington sounds very much like: "Someone else decide. We're staying home."

As it happens, President Obama isn't the only anti-leadership leader on the global stage these days. Barack, meet Angela -- she's the most powerful politician in Europe, but oh, how she wishes she weren't. You know the feeling …

It's a funny thing, but for decades people have been complaining about these two powerful nations throwing their weight around, imposing their will on the less powerful, ruthlessly pursuing their narrow national interests without regard for the welfare of others. For a large chunk of the 20th century, Europe lived in fear of an over-mighty Germany. Much of the rest of the world (south-east Asia, central and south America) feared Uncle Sam.

And now? Cries from all sides: where's German leadership to save us from euro-catastrophe? Where's Washington when we need a world policeman to save us from tyrants intent on slaughtering their own people? The Germans are going to the polls in 10 days' time, and apparently vegetarianism is a bigger election issue than Syria.

A senior diplomat once told me that in order to get any agreement on effective international action, you always need at least one determined political leader prepared to go out in front and argue, cajole and twist arms. In Kosovo, it was Tony Blair. In Afghanistan and Iraq, George W Bush. The banking crash, Gordon Brown (yes, really). In Libya, Nicolas Sarkozy. In Syria -- no one.

And for good reason, of course: lessons have been learned. Previous interventions have not all been stunning successes (I hope you appreciate my oh-so-British understatement). In the light of the Afghanistan-Iraq-Libya experiences, it's only too likely that international military action in Syria will make things even worse than they already are. So three cheers for reluctant warriors.

But we reached some kind of nadir this week, didn't we, when the US secretary of state John Kerry was reduced to threatening an "unbelievably small" strike against Syria, if and when it came. It was like a school bully saying: "I'm going to hit you, but don't worry, it won't hurt."

As you'll have gathered, I'm very much in favour of reluctant warriors. And I'm instinctively suspicious of those who call for more "strong leaders". (The strongest leader on the global stage at the moment -- or at least the leader who goes to the greatest lengths to portray himself as strong -- is Vladimir Putin, and I'm not sure he's necessarily a force for good.)

Yet we still live in the shadow of the Halabja massacre of 1988, when Saddam Hussein dropped poison gas on the Kurds, and the Rwanda genocide of 1994. Was it right for the rest of us to stand to one side and do nothing, even as up to 5,000 people in Halabja and an estimated 800,000 in Rwanda were slaughtered? Are there no horrors so great that there is a moral imperative to intervene?  As for the argument that we must look after our own interests first, well, ignoring the horrors of Taliban rule in Afghanistan led directly to 9/11 …

So I've decided that "don't know" is not a good response in times of grave international crisis. I would much prefer it if Mr Obama did his agonising behind closed doors, rather than provoke raucous laughter from the Presidential palace in Damascus.

And I would really, really like it if he made a serious effort to engage with the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, who may just be the best chance there is in the region for a new start. If Mr Obama wants to get back on the front foot, how about a dramatic invitation to Tehran: "Let's meet, face to face, any place, any time, no conditions …" Now that really could make a difference, unlike the Russian chemical weapons initiative which I fear will go precisely nowhere. (Even so, it's definitely worth reading President Putin's piece in yesterday's New York Times.)

A final thought from the Oxford academic Timothy Garton Ash, writing in yesterday's Guardian: "To the many critics and downright enemies of the US in Europe and across the globe, I say only this: if you didn't like that old world in which the US regularly intervened, just see how you like the new one in which it does not."

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