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Syria, Obama, and the Value-Interest

President Obama’s 31 August decision to authorize but delay a military strike against Syria’s Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the wake of the alleged use of chemical weapons is an important moment. Taken together with the 29 August decision of Britain’s Parliament to deny Prime Minister Cameron permission to use force two changes are apparent.  .

Written by Julian Lindley-French Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

First, an evolution is taking place in both America and Britain over the use, utility and place of force in strategy. Indeed, what is striking about Obama-Cameron is how far they are from Bush-Blair, even if their respective peoples fear otherwise. Second, the now traditional confusion between values and interests is morphing in the presidential mind into a new Obama doctrine–the value interest. This is a place where Justus Lipsius meets Machiavelli (not to mention Talleyrand).

The problem for Obama is that the subjectivity implicit in the value-interest and the law of unintended consequences to which it is heir makes it hard to discern any relationship between ends, ways and means. Would an Assad regime with the blood of tens of thousands of its people on its hands feel a slap on the wrist? Would cruise missiles slamming into empty command and control bunkers and arsenals degrade the regime? Would the action in and of itself send a message to other tyrants not use chemical weapons?  Would such a strike open up new avenues towards a regional political settlement?

It is precisely the cracks in the American (and British) strategic mind between punishing Assad and sending a broader message into which ends, ways and means are falling.  The punitive strike Obama has on offer is neither intervention nor punishment, something Senator John McCain has rather pointedly alluded to by suggesting there is neither plan nor strategy.

The value-interest is the strategic sibling of democratic legitimacy in that it beautifies the national interest. This is particularly important now that international law is in crisis and the UN Security Council has once again been reduced to the theatre of big power cynicism.

A Washington power struggle is now taking place between values and interests with the President casting himself as arbiter rather than leader. Whilst the slaughter of innocents should indeed cause deep moral indignation it is not enough of and in its own right to act as the basis for American grand strategy. The language of US Secretary of State John Kerry has at times come close to being a statement of values masquerading as interests. This is precisely what made the second Bush’s years so unpredictable.  Getting the balance right between values and interests is absolutely essential at such moments and thus a pause for reflection is no bad thing.

Equally, the very hybridity of the value-interest makes it an uncomfortable partner for strategy given that it occupies an indeterminate and ill-determined space between Western liberalism and Realpolitik. At one end of the spectrum the value-interest leads many on the left to call for Western intervention in all the world’s conflicts under the UN’s tattered and sovereignty-flouting Responsibility to Protect. This is Tony Blair’s view. However, given the experience of Afghanistan and Iraq and cuts to Western armed forces the value-interest simply makes a mockery of ends, ways and means.

At the other end of the spectrum the Chinese and Russians uphold the utterly cynical view that the national state interest is the only test of intervention and sovereignty the sovereign coin of the realm. Indeed, ‘sovereignty’ is the new fault-line in international politics. This does not suggest a rosy international future should China ever dominate.

The value-interest also masks a deep fault-line between Americans and Europeans over the ends, ways, and means of geopolitics. Americans believe in the value-interest because it is part of American ‘moral exceptionalism’ whereas Britain and France still retain just a smidgeon of global reflex, albeit one that it is fast-eroding. However, for many other Europeans national sovereignty is simply an empty shell in which the remains of the national interest occasionally twitches but is now by and large dead. For them the dystopian uplands of legalism offer a false refuge against the imperatives of the age. With the UN Security Council stymied that means utter inaction.

The only way for Obama to some restore balance between ends, ways, and means and the value-interest would be a return to American statecraft. This is clearly what President Obama was referring to when he said “…this mission is not time-sensitive; it will be effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now.”

Statecraft demands a balanced package of co-option and coercion in pursuit of ends that are both desirable and achievable. It requires strategic judgement, sound intelligence, the patient building of coalitions but above all a political strategy supported by credible national means–political, economic, diplomatic, and finally military–applied consistently over time and distance.

In Syria and the wider Middle East it is the absence of statecraft that has done so much damage and the confusion of values with interests could be about to make the situation a whole lot worse.

This post previously appeared at the Atlantic Council.

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