Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein



The president's decision to seek congressional authorization for an attack on Syria was all but inevitable after he and Secretary of State John Kerry failed to muster sufficient international support to provide legitimacy for the action.

Obama's likely mistake was made two years ago when he declared that Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad should leave office and permit a new government to be formed. It was an idealistic view which Obama could not implement with rhetoric.

The U.N. Security Council was established in 1945 to deal with crises like Syria's violence and its potential to threaten neighboring states. The civil war in Bosnia ended in 1996 after the Security Council authorized a large U.S.-led intervention.

On Syria, however, the U.N. seems powerless because Russia opposes military intervention. Why does Moscow resist the Security Council's use of force to stop a civil war that has caused 100,000 deaths and the use of chemical weapons?

Russian intransigence

The main reason is President Vladimir Putin's unwillingness to trust the U.S. and NATO. He thinks Russia was misled by Britain, France and the U.S. two years ago when it agreed to a U.N. Resolution on Libya to use force to protect citizens of Benghazi endangered by the murderous Khadaffi regime. Putin argues that Russia did not agree to a bombing campaign to bring down Libya's government.

Although Russia had agreed to the U.N.'s intervention in Bosnia, it vigorously opposed an attack by the U.S., Britain, France on Serbia in 1999 to force it to end ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. NATO bombed Serbia for seventy-eight days, and its leadership relented. But Boris Yeltsin, then Russia's president, was outraged and sent 200 paratroopers into Pristina Airport, to reinforce Moscow's demand that it be included in negotiations to end the conflict.

Vladimir Putin, elected president in 2000, supported the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, and he allowed Russia‘s territory to be use for shipping supplies to its troops. However, in 2003 Putin denounced the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq which was also opposed by France and other NATO allies, notably Germany and Canada. They insisted on U.N. approval, which Putin threatened to veto. As a result, President George Bush, supported by Great Britain, proceeded without UN endorsement.

Realism on Syria

President Obama has three realistic policy options in dealing with this crisis: 1) Attack Syria if Congress votes to give him authority; 2) If Congress fails to approve, proceed with limited bombing and disable key Syrian military installations; 3) Delay bombing and launch a major diplomatic campaign to persuade other states to support UN action on Syria. Here's how it might unfold:

John Kerry along with the president will earn applause from Congress, the NATO allies, and the international community if they can convince Russia to support a U.N. resolution that enables an international force, including Russians, to intervene in Syria and remain until a new government is formed and functioning.

Persuading a strong nationalist leader like Vladimir Putin will take much patience, It also requires the U.S. to acknowledge that it cannot control the unfolding revolutionary events occurring across the Middle East. A realistic policy is accepting that Russia has historical national interests in the region that need to be accommodated, especially if Americans oppose entering another Iraq-type conflagration.

File last modified on Friday, 6-SEP-2013 12:36 PM EST

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