Hard Talks: Moving Forward From Vienna

What Secretary of State John Kerry described as the 'most promising opportunity' for a political solution to the Syrian war, was an opportunity that could only be realized through compromise. Frustrated by Iranian positioning in the Vienna talks, the U.S. has stepped up the military side of their Syria strategy by committing special forces, possibly an attempt to gain leverage in subsequent talks. However, commentators on President Obama's Middle East strategy may be constraining available options through an unreflective, macho discourse on international relations.

Donald Trump claimed in September that President Obama had allowed Putin to become emboldened because President Obama is "not strong". He went on to say,"[p]art of the problem that Ukraine has with the United States is that Putin does not respect our president whatsoever." This characterization has sadly continued to haunt the President. Stephen Sackur, from the BBC's HARDtalk in an interview with U.S. Ambassador Matthew Barzun, returned to the questions Trump had raised, asking whether or not the President's "soft" approach is hurting U.S. foreign policy. Sackur is certainly not alone towing this line.

The line in international relations talk painting the President's foreign policy and approach to Syria and the Middle East as "soft" bleeds quickly into charges of "weakness" and on the fringe even calling it "impotence". This image that some commentators seem to have swallowed uncritically of Putin with his shirt off as a virile leader and Obama as soft-hearted and weak not only reflects an implicit feminization of the President as a way to discredit his approach, but is the gossip magazine version of how to understand international affairs.

The personalizing and gendering of the strategies suggests that international diplomacy happens only among unconstrained men in backrooms with their cigars, as if there were not an international legal framework delineating the ways in which entire diplomatic teams (male and female, but yes, mostly male) speak and act.

A political split among permanent members of the Security Council not only limits possible responses to any given crisis, but it demonstrates a lack of a common understanding. Anthony Cordesman from the Center for Strategic and International Studies has argued that we should stop speculating about the personality and hidden beliefs of Putin and focus on clearly articulated strategies by the Russian civil and military leadership. He notes that key Russian officers and officials believe the U.S. and the "West" are strategically destabilizing nations in North Africa and the Middle East in the name of humanitarian intervention. Russia's backing of Assad is not merely Putin pouting to get his way at the negotiating table, nor an empty threat of force, but a response to a widespread understanding of the "West's" Middle East strategy. This understanding is not limited to Russia either. It is also a widely held belief in the Middle East. It is an incorrect imputation of intention, but it is difficult to argue that thus far U.S. led military intervention in the Middle East has not had a destabilizing effect.

The reality is that the Obama administration has used 'hard' talk on Assad while reaching positive long-term results with 'soft' strategies within the UN charter framework. Although it has not been possible to reach agreement thus far holding Assad personally accountable for the use of Chemical weapons, agreement for long-term strategy was reached. In 2014 France first proposed a resolution in the Security Council to refer the issue of Syria to the International Criminal Court. This resolution failed when it was vetoed by Russia and China. However, the Security Council worked together to deal with Syria's chemical weapons stockpile. In March 2015, Security Council Resolution 2209 preauthorized military action in the event it is determined that Syria again uses chemical weapons. Focusing on eliminating the weapons, and enforcing the prohibition instead of prosecuting one man ensures that whatever government follows Assad's rule they will not have a chemical weapon stockpile to use against their enemies. Within a legal framework there is always a threat of violence, whether it is direct such as with Chapter VII or indirect such as with criminal prosecution or simply structural. With violence always in the background in the UN system, it seems the "hard" and "soft" labels are only marginally useful and may be more distracting than informative. They play into people's uncritical gender biases, underestimating the power of the "soft" and perhaps even push less secure leaders into taking more "masculine" or militarized approaches to crises.

What we can expect from any peace plan from subsequent talks will almost necessarily result in less than what the U.S. had originally asked. The cost of ending the war through diplomacy will mean that Assad will likely never face justice. However, a negotiated transition ending a brutal civil war would be anything but weak.

The irony is that the "soft' talk is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the strategy to a negotiated peace is characterized negatively as soft, undermining its support it may "weaken" any peace and embolden calls for direct military action or escalation by those who do not understand why a Kosovo-like NATO military intervention outside the Security Council should be off the table. There must be an international meeting of the minds.

If an agreement is reached, it will be less about the personalities of heads of state and more about geopolitical strategy and negotiating teams. In any event, however the international community goes forward to end the Syrian conflict, the feminization of non-militarized responses must end.