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Turning ploughshares into swords

By Bruce Haigh - posted Friday, 6 September 2013

The American Administration seems determined to carry out a punitive attack against the Assad regime for the latter’s alleged use of nerve gas against Syrian civilians, this despite the British parliament voting against support for such a course of action. Spooked, Obama is now seeking the approval of Congress, which may be difficult to obtain.

The French President, Francois Hollande, is seeking armed intervention but says France will not act alone.

Faced with the choice of using force or diplomacy to resolve international tension, America, over the past twenty years or so, has chosen force, or fifty years, if Vietnam is seen as a starting point for American armed intervention.


American diplomacy has evolved into a vehicle for the promotion of force as a primary tool of handling international problems. It has been captured by the military establishment and the political fixers of Congress and the Administration to lobby for and sell the notion of armed intervention as the ultimate tool of American diplomacy. The power of dialogue, networking, influential connections and on the ground information gathering has been subsumed by a belief that outcomes favouring the United States can best be achieved by electronic surveillance and the use of force.

The United States President, Barack Obama, claims the moral authority to attack select targets in Syria because of the use of nerve gas, legitimately described as a weapon of mass destruction. This moral authority is diminished when set against his administration’s use of drones over the past six years in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen that have killed as many if not more civilians, including women and children, than the Syrian nerve gas attack.

Obama’s ‘solution’ is bereft of imagination and subtlety. It is a frustrated and angry response from a tired and diminished superpower, intent on demonstrating that it still has the strength to determine international outcomes. On past performance a US attack on Syria, however much is claimed for weapons capable of delivering pay loads with surgical precision, civilians are likely to be victims.

If a punitive attack, which has been referred to as a shot across the bows, fails to deter the Assad regime from further nerve gas attacks on Syrian civilians, does the US then up the use of force and if so by how much? This is poor strategy, one fraught with danger and one which the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan appear already lost or not taken on board. It also carries with it the possibility of conflict spreading in the Middle East with Israel looking for an excuse to attack Syrian ally, Iran.

There is no doubt that the cruel attack on innocent civilians by the Assad regime is worthy of the strongest condemnation and sanction.  As a course of action before the use of force was contemplated the matter should have been brought before the UN General Assembly. The revulsion over this attack by the international community could then be demonstrated to the Syrian regime and its backers, Russia and Iran, by what would likely be the vast majority of delegates. This would provide leverage for further combined UN action.

Obama has criticised what he terms the ‘incapacity’ of the UN Security Council over Syria. However part of that incapacity is due to the Administration’s desire to act unilaterally and to be seen to be doing so in order to enhance its role as an international peacekeeper  and policeman. The United States has little respect for the UN and its agencies.


It has spent the last week trying to tie ‘friendly’ heads of state into its proposed course of action. There has been no mention by the US of seeking to work through the UN for a possible solution. Critics of the UN and those favouring a direct US attack are quick to cite the ineffectiveness of the UN, however undermining and by passing the organisation creates self-fulfilling outcomes.

The Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has been approached by Obama. Rudd has not taken the Australian people into his confidence, but apparently he has made all the right noises to Obama. Nor has Rudd taken into his confidence the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs. The professionals are less than pleased.

All the more so that, as from yesterday, Australia assumed the Presidency of the Security Council. Australia is lucky to have Gary Quinlan as Australian Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UN and as a result of these appointments he is the new President of the UNSC. Quinlan, an experienced and intelligent diplomat, is unlikely to blanch at accepting the challenge of responsibilities thrust on him by the difficult situation in Syria, a US Administration giving short shrift to the UN and a change of government in Australia.

With Quinlan occupying the Presidency, it is a unique opportunity for Australia to demonstrate some creative leadership of the UNSC. It is open to the new President to refer the issue of Syrian transgressions to the UN General Assembly which would allow the type of debate outlined above.

The Australian Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, likely to be Prime Minister after the election on Saturday said, on the ABC Insiders program on 1 September and repeated on the ABC 7.30 Report on 2 September, that he did not favour an armed response along the lines being mooted by the US Administration.

After Saturday he might seek to give Quinlan the brief he needs to demonstrate Australian leadership and diplomatic mettle. Such leadership might help get American out of the bind it has created for itself and force a measure of respect for Australia hitherto lacking in the bilateral relationship.

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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