Cause and Effect: The Use of Force and Diplomacy in Two Administrations

The recent turmoil surrounding the White House’ response to the chemical attacks in Syria invites us to compare the Obama administration’s attitude to the use of force with that of its predecessor. And when we compare the two, an interesting contrast can be made. Whereas President Bush used diplomacy as a fig leaf for the use of force, President Obama has used the use of force as a fig leaf for diplomacy.


Image courtesy of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff © 2013, some rights reserved
Image courtesy of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff © 2013, some rights reserved


The Bush administration may have sought a Security Council resolution to approve the use of proportionate force against Saddam Hussein’s regime, but ultimately such a resolution was not forthcoming. Resolution 1441 (2002) may have found Iraq in breach of the ceasefire terms presented under Resolution 687 (1991), but it failed to provide the administration with the necessary mandate it sought to approve the use of force. Despite this shortfall, Secretary of State Colin Powell subsequently interpreted the passage of this resolution liberally, as somehow providing a mandate for the use of force. The story of the Iraq invasion under an ad-hoc ‘coalition of the willing’, and the ambiguous evidence surrounding it, is well known, but the political fallout of the Iraq invasion is particularly noteworthy. As debates raged within Westminster regarding whether Britain should join the United States over a potential use of force in Syria, the invasion of Iraq was invoked didactically.


In his futile attempt to convince parliament of the need to join the United States, Prime Minister Cameron was keen to stress that any use of force would not represent a repeat of Iraq. Whether or not any use of force in Syria will indeed represent such a repetition remains to be seen, but the important point to make surrounding the diplomacy prior to the Iraq invasion is that it was used by the Bush administration as a fig leaf for the use of force. Despite ambiguous evidence, and a characteristically divided Security Council that passed a resolution very limited in its mandate, the Bush administration interpreted resolution 1441 liberally as a way to justify its use of force against the Hussein regime.


As yet, the dust may not have settled over the furor surrounding the response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria. But what is emerging appears to be the exact opposite concerning how the Obama administration regards diplomacy and its relationship to the use of force. As news of the attacks emerged, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry spoke confidently of the need to punish a regime that, in the face of overwhelming evidence, had allegedly used chemical weapons against its own people. Armed, perhaps, with conclusive evidence that such attacks had been carried-out, the discourse surrounding the administration may have resonated more with hawkish conservatives. And notwithstanding Obama’s plea to appease a war-weary American public that regime change would not be the ultimate mandate of any use of force, the administration nonetheless stressed the need to punish a regime by military means for breaching a prohibition that had been established in the aftermath of the First World War.


Increasingly, however, and in stark contrast to the Bush administration, threats regarding the use of force began to be subsumed by diplomacy. As the Bush administration used diplomacy to ultimately (and very controversially) launch a military invasion on Iraq, the Obama administration has instead used the threat of use of force to induce a diplomatic solution. At this point, it seems important to emphasize Russia’s role in providing in providing such a solution. Russia may appear to some as providing a constant bulwark against intervention. Its steadfast defense of sovereignty may frustrate and even paralyze any interventionist attempts, but through such a defense, a compromise solution has been reached. The exhausting, but critically important task of ridding Syria of its chemical weapons arsenal represents the latest chapter in the diplomatic impasse between Moscow and Washington. The Obama administration’s strong, and for some compelling argument of the need for a surgical strike against the Assad regime has induced something of a diplomatic solution. On this occasion, diplomacy has triumphed over military force; but the trajectory of this triumph is inverted when we compare it to the use of military force in Iraq. Some may see this solution as weak, and fall short of punishing a regime for conducting a series of dreadful and inhumane attacks, but the Obama administration has, inadvertently perhaps, stumbled upon a solution after threatening the very action that the previous administration carried out. The latest vicissitudes of diplomacy in the Security Council remind us that the most appropriate and agreed upon solution to a problem of international security is forever subject to compromise. 

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