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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

After Obama’s Speech: A Way Forward

The responses to President Obama’s speech on intervention in Syria from pundits and politicos left and right have been predictable enough thus far. But this Washington Post op-ed from a politically-moderate former president and Obama’s fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jimmy Carter, who kept the U.S. out of war, should be of interest:

It is no reflection on the president that he expressed his decision clearly to our citizens and to the world, properly sought congressional concurrence and has done his utmost to implement his decision by securing necessary votes in the House and Senate. All U.S. presidents have been forced to endure highly publicized rejections of major proposals concerning both domestic and international issues. This is to be expected in any democratic nation, as has occurred recently in Britain and might soon happen in France.
…The international community should take concerted action to discourage or prevent a repetition of this crime. Although Security Council condemnation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is not possible because of division among world leaders about who is responsible for the atrocity, and a strong condemnatory resolution is likely to be vetoed, the ultimate goal of deterring future use of weapons of mass destruction would be greatly enhanced if the major powers were unanimous in their commitment.

In an interview with NPR’s Michelle Martin, former World Court Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo offered this observation and suggestion:

I think it’s very important that President Obama took a firm stand. Without that energy – without that will – nothing would happen today. In the last month, nothing happened. So that’s first point – very important President Obama moving. What the world will do what the Obama administration should do is to discuss it. The idea that something should be done is the first point….
…My idea is use the International Criminal Court as a future threat. So my idea is tell me all the actors, because it’s not just Assad. People say it’s Al Qaeda – other groups committing crimes, OK. Everyone, the idea will be you have to understand from the first of January 2014, the International Criminal Court will investigate any crimes. So, stop the crimes now or you will be prosecuted.
And to make this threat serious, we have to say and we will enforce the arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court. Whoever is indicted will be arrested and we will find a way to arrest them. So that could make the difference. That I think could happen….The way to include the International Criminal Court is a Security Council resolution. The U.N. Security Council could decide. So the idea I’m discussing is, if the U.N. Security Council decide to do it in the next three months – so we will start the adjudication in three months – then you create a different environment because if you’re not stopping the crimes, you go to jail. And people in Syria are committing crimes to gain power. So if they know they go to jail, they will stop…
…What I saw as a prosecutor, when the world is united, they can stop the crimes. If China, Russia, U.S. and everyone is united, they can stop the crimes in Syria. So we have to build this community. And in some way, President Obama triggered this new moment. We have to take advantage of the moment.

What is interesting about Ocampo’s idea is the notion that the threat of punishment for atrocities, when grounded in solid international commitment, could be more powerful than punishment itself in preventing future use of chemical weapons. It would also set a precedent that could help deter future tyrants from gassing civilians.
It’s easy enough to be cynical about Russia and China doing the right thing regarding chemical weapons in Syria. But it’s hard to see a successful outcome without their support. Both nations stand to benefit from stability in Syria.
Credit Ocampo also with the insight that, despite all of the Obama-bashing going on from the right and the left regarding his threat to Assad, the President has raised the dialogue to a new understanding that “something should be done.” The Republicans will never give him due credit for it, but the stage is now being set for diplomatic progress and creative conflict-resolution, two alien concepts for their party.

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