After a few blog-free weeks over the summer I am picking up my pen again. Thank you to all of my colleagues who have stepped into the breach with great pieces on China, Russia, Brazil, the trans-Siberian railway and more. In fact, the quality of writing has been dangerously high which is why I am rushing back into print before too many of you notice the quality differential.
If this blog has a theme it is probably about trying to shed some light on what a weird world we live in. Well, it does not get much weirder than what has been going on in the past two weeks.
A few days ago the Syrians were bracing themselves for a military attack from the United States with possible walk-on parts from France and Britain. The region was preparing itself for the repercussions. And then democracy happened.
Despite personal misgivings President Obama had a plan – it may not have had the virtue of complete unambiguous clarity – but it was a plan: punish the Syrian regime for blatantly using chemical weapons and hope the consequences are not too severe. Prime Minister Cameron had no such misgivings and he too thought he had a plan (“whatever Tony Blair can do, I can do too”) until he made the elementary school boy error of sharing it with parliament which accurately but accidentally reflected the groundswell of British public opinion and stopped the PM’s plan in its tracks.
This may have caused President Obama to listen to the more cautious voice in his head and decide to get Congressional support before launching the cruise missiles. Meanwhile, President Hollande – who has only been in the job for a year but has already twigged that democracy can be a tiresome process – had no such intention of letting the National Assembly have a say in the matter and stepped forward into the unlikely role as America’s steadfast military partner.
While the wheels of democracy were grinding away in Washington and elsewhere, another plan emerged: put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control and beyond use. President Putin did not realise it was his plan until Secretary of State Kerry announced what it was at a press conference in London.
The Russian president was quick off the mark penning an article for the New York Times explaining that it had been his idea all along before Obama announced that he liked the plan and it had actually been his idea in the first place. In Damascus President Assad was just finishing a press conference denying Syria had any chemical weapons when Putin called to remind him that in fact he did – lots. Assad quickly overcame his amnesia on the subject and endorsed the new plan enthusiastically.
Back in Europe, Cameron has stopped being grumpy that his old plan had been taken off him and is now trying to share the new plan with the others. Hollande is now even more sceptical than before but has had to put his itchy trigger finger back in his pocket and head off to the United Nations to drum up support for the new plan.
For now it seems that Presidents Putin and Assad have outfoxed America. But if, as I write this, they are feeling a little smug in Moscow and Damascus they might remember that this strange tale has many more twists to come.
Just maybe there is some grand design behind all of these extraordinary comings and goings. But I doubt it. I have a feeling that these chaotic fumblings are how foreign affairs unfold and that what is unusual is not the bizarre sequence of events but that for some reason it has all been played out in plain sight.
It would be excessively cynical to suggest that our leaders only care about narrow political or national interests and it sounds almost trite to mention that the terrible suffering of the Syrian people goes on away from the clunky mechanics of parliamentary democracy and the craftiness of superpower rivalry. But the soap opera of super power rivalry – however comic – is being played out at their expense.