By Jules Witcover
3:26 PM EDT, September 16, 2013
While the slaughter goes on in the Syrian civil war, a remarkable war of words has broken out over the threatened use of American force there, led by of all people Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Moscow's strongman of the post-Cold War era, or at least some assigned wordsmith, wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times making a clever pitch for taking the dispute to the United Nations, where an anticipated Russian veto had deterred the United States from doing so in the first place.
Mr. Putin, customarily cast in the Western press as the black hat in the much-reduced U.S.-Russian competition for global influence, has sudden donned a white chapeau as the real peacenik. His intervention has already led Syrian dictator Bashar Assad to promise to turn over his heretofore unacknowledged chemical weapons to U.N. control and ultimate scrapping.
The Putin op-ed was full of lofty defenses of the U.N., warning that failure to use its mechanisms could doom it to the fate suffered by the League of Nations after World War I, "which collapsed because it lacked real leverage." Mr. Putin went on: "This is possible if influential countries bypass the United Nations and take military action without Security Council authorization."
Mr. Putin then conjured up a post-U.S. attack that would throw the entire Middle East into an even worse muddle, increasing violence and terrorism and undermining "multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." He warned such an attack "could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance."
The Russian leader insisted that in so writing "we are not protecting the Syrian government but international law." In so saying, Mr. Putin took the same rhetorical cover that President Barack Obama earlier invoked in arguing his threat of military force is in defense of the international charter against the use of chemical weapons.
Mr. Putin then offered Obama the schoolroom lecture on working through the Security Council: "The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not. Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council." Anything else, went on, would violate the U.N. Charter and be "an act of aggression."
In the mode of one friend to another, Mr. Putin wrote that millions around the world "see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force," and even in the United States "many draw an analogy between Iraq and Syria, and ask why their government would want to repeat recent mistakes. ... We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement."
Thus did Mr. Putin cast himself as the reasoning elder statesman counseling his younger counterpart on the ways of the contemporary world, while pointedly chiding him for talking in a superior way about "American exceptionalism." In other words, the Russian president was dealing himself into the latest international poker game, claiming he held the high cards and urging Mr. Obama to fold his hand of threatening the military strike.
That seems to be where the crisis stands for now, with Mr. Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry insisting that the threat will stand until Mr. Assad moves quickly with credible evidence of complying with his promise to rid himself of the weapons in question. But a war of words remains preferable to the releasing of missiles that can't be recalled, as the two sides spar for advantage.
In the last somewhat similar East-West confrontation of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, secret diplomacy played a key role. The Russian leaders finally agreed to pull their weapons out of the Caribbean island, on the then-undisclosed condition that U.S. missiles in Turkey aimed at the Soviet Union would later be dismantled, as subsequently was done.
The challenge to both Messrs. Obama and Putin now, as the public war of words continues, is to pivot to less public diplomacy to extricate all parties from a dangerous confrontation that both sides want to avoid.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is email@example.com.
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