The complexities of the US-Russian-Syrian issues are shaping up to be a spectacular lesson for students of public policy.
On the one hand there are these considerations. . . On the other hand are these. . .
In the light of these conditions, what should be the policy of the United States?
Of course there is no clear or "objective" answer. Someone has to decide. Most prominently it will be the President of the United States, with inputs from White House advisers, Secretaries and others from the Departments of Defense and State, plus whatever comes out of Congress, what reaches the President from interest groups and commentators in the US and overseas, as well as the pressures and pleadings of other governments.
The Assad government, while clearly over the edge by virtue of targeting civilian populations with conventional and--from all the persuasive evidence--chemical weapons, is the established government trying to defend itself in a civil war, in which there are involved many outsiders as well as Syrian fighters, with recruitment, munitions, and training from a variety of foreign governments that include Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, and the United States.
It is certain that many of those outsiders are Islamic extremists, whose victory would not serve anyone concerned about fighting terror or reforming the Middle East in anything like democratic and secular directions mindful about the rights of religious and political minorities.
It is not certain whether Islamic extremists are the weightiest elements among opponents to the Assad regime, or whether they would be likely to control whatever government emerges to replace Assad, assuming that such an event occurs in all or in part of what is now Syria.
The greatest plus of the Assad government is that it is secular, and has a record of protecting the ethnic and religious minorities of Syria.
It also has the support of Russia, whose own record as a law-abiding democracy is subject to some doubts. Yet Russia is a power to be reckoned with, and has shown signs of opposing Assad''s use of chemical weapons, as well as Iran''s development of nuclear weapons.
One neat solution, admittedly affected by other issues in the great power game, is for Russia and Assad to agree that Russian personnel will take charge of all chemical weapons and either neutralize them in Syria or take them out of the country.
Russia''s alignment with Iran and Hezbollah in support of Assad has both attractive and unattractive aspects. One attractive element is using Russia with Iranian and Hezbollah assent, to deal with the chemical weapons. Another is including in such a deal Russian pressure against Iran to clearly end the Iranian development of nuclear weapons.
Getting in the way of all this is the history of US-Russian relationships. The Cold War is still in the memories of both sides, with US attitudes toward Russia affected by ample evidence of judicial and administrative measures--including those associated with Vladimir Putin--less than fitting American criteria of being transparent and law-abiding, or with its foreign policy deserving the labels "enlightened," or "contributing to the prospects of a decent world."
There is also Edward Snowden, whose refuge in Russia both adds to the problems in the way of any US dealing with Russia, and raises some questions about the US''s own standing with respect to being transparent and law-abiding.
Congress has begun what is generally the case--and healthy in its democratic context--of speaking with many voices.
There are Democrats who are loyal party members inclined to support their President, with or without the added feeling that the use of chemical weapons is ample justification for punishment. There are Democrats opposed to warfare in virtually all cases. There are Democrats who are not convinced that this is a good war for Americans to enter, and who feel that their President should be using whatever resources are available--as well as going further into debt--for domestic concerns. Some of the latter are African-Americans, motivated both by concerns for greater spending for the sake of their constituents, and opposing the likelihood of their constituents having their feet on the ground in Syria and paying the heaviest price of military action.
One can find most of these reservations also among Republicans, along with party incentives to oppose the President, sharpened by strong opposition to him on a host of domestic issues. Also more likely among Republicans--but not entirely absent among Democrats--are the feelings that any activity in Syria must be a great deal more decisive than that mentioned to date by the President.
American public opinion and commentators are all over the map, with no clear and decisive majorities in any direction.
Among the interest groups, one of the signs worthy of comment from an Israeli perspective is AIPAC''s support of the President. According to an item in the Jerusalem Post
"The powerful pro-Israel lobby in Washington came out in support of the resolution in a statement issued earlier this week, but was expected to step-up its lobbying efforts, as the measure to attack Syria was thus far failing to muster a sufficient number of votes to pass in the House of Representatives . . . some 250 Jewish leaders planned to make the case to lawmakers next week that failure to act in the face of Syrian President Bashar Assad''s use of chemical weapons would serve to embolden Iran in its pursuit of nuclear weapons."
It''s anybody''s guess how this fits with the Israeli government''s repeated assertions that it has no stake in the Syrian civil war.
One possibility is that Israel is being Jewishly deceitful, and trying to save its cake and eat it too.
Another possibility is that the AIPAC action demonstrates that the organization is more American than Israeli. It is not in Israel''s pocket, and may be moved to demonstrate American patriotic inclinations by supporting the President in his moral crusade against evil weapons. Its leadership may think that this is in Israel''s best interests, with or without the agreement of Israeli officials.
Despite a headline, "Israel Backs Limited Strike Against Syria," a New York Times article quotes no Israeli official n support of that position.
Expectations are that Congress will take a while to express its Members'' postures, aspirations, and/or confusion. It may not be a time to bet large sums on a decision in one direction or another, or whether the President''s move to Congress will produce a more forceful action against Syria than he initially proposed.
Will the President''s intervention--if it is anything like what we have heard to date--be more likely to produce a clear winning force that will govern according to international norms, or will it be more likely to perpetuate the situation of numerous factions--some of them ugly in the extreme--fighting one another?
The UN General Secretary and the Pope have both said that any American led attack on Syria must have the prior approval of the UN Security Council.
A number of government heads at the recent economic summit urged against an attack on the grounds of the damage it would do to oil prices and other elements of the international economy.
Both Russia and the US are beefing up their fleets of warships in the eastern Mediterranean.
There remains the question as whether Barack Obama will attack under any circumstances. The contrast between John Kerry''s speech about moral outrage and the President''s next day decision to wait for Congressional action has led some to conclude that the President is chicken, and will find reasons for avoiding an attack no matter what Congress does.
There are further lessons about the implications of one or another form of American action. Or inaction.
In other words, What comes next?
At this point, it is too early for preparing an outline that may guide such a discussion.