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Chan Lowe | South Florida Sun Sentinel

Playing the peacemaker

Intermediaries vital in efforts to avoid war

Toole

If the plan to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal continues apace, it won’t be the first time diplomacy has enabled potential belligerents to take a step away from war. We just don’t always hear about it.

“I think it really is more common than we might think,” said IPFW’s James Toole.

There are countries that consistently play the role of peacemaker, said Toole, an associate professor of political science who teaches international relations. Norway, for instance, tried to bring an end to a bloody civil war in Sri Lanka in the 2000s. Canada and Sweden also have sought to help with other nations’ conflicts.

Nor does America always reach for the military option, though with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, “we were kind of getting used to the U.S. approaching things that way,” Toole said. But often diplomatic efforts are going on behind the scenes.

Perhaps the best-known example is how the U.S. and Russia clandestinely worked to resolve the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis peacefully though Armageddon loomed.

Toole wonders what might have been going on beyond the world’s view when North Korea erupted in bellicosity a few months ago. There were threats from new leader Kim Jong-un and a video of Washington in flames. And then, unaccountably, North Korean officials lowered their tones.

“Now, the whole crisis has gone back to the way it was before,” Toole said. Maybe the whole thing was some kind of internal conflict related to Kim’s taking power. But, “who knows? Maybe China was involved behind the scenes, putting a lot of pressure to get North Korea to calm down.”

Toole, who is already using the Syrian crisis to discuss negotiations in his classes, believes there could be more to the story of how the confrontation has been rerouted. President Barack “Obama is aloof – kind of a cool character who doesn’t show his hand,” Toole said, and Secretary of State John Kerry was criticized for stressing how limited missile strikes against Syria might be. But behind the diplomatic veil, the U.S. may have threatened more serious military action.

Suddenly, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had never challenged Syria’s leader, Bashar Assad, on chemical weapons, decided to play peacemaker. But it very likely was the threat of U.S. intervention that brought the Russian leader around, Toole said.

Tim Roemer, the former ambassador to India who served 12 years as Indiana’s 3rd District congressman, also thinks it’s likely that some of the efforts that brought Syria to the table may have been behind the curtains.

“There might have been very quiet, back-channel negotiations with different parties,” he said. The U.S. was stepping through a minefield of conflicting interests: “the Sunni-Shiite conflict, Iran and the Saudis dumping arms into the conflict, Russia … you couldn’t have a more complex and nuanced situation.”

Roemer says he’s “delighted to see it,” but warns that a negotiated settlement on chemical weapons only buys America some time to deal with the ultimate question of what to do about Assad.

“The question might become even more complicated by the resolution of the chemical weapons problem,” Roemer said. It’s a tricky equation: In the short term, the deal may help Assad hold onto power. “Now he’s in a position to tell you how to get rid of the weapons.”

Actually seeing the process through could be equally tricky, Roemer warns. Dismantling the chemical weapons systems must take place “in many locations in a very dangerous climate, over and over again. …

“The cost of diplomacy in terms of time and resources certainly is enormous, and that takes time from other issues,” he said, including other peacemaking efforts.

Though Roemer says he fully supports the president’s present course, in retrospect it might have been wiser if the U.S. had done “a special-operations strike in Syria two to three months ago.”

David Cortright, director of policy at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, believes that the hesitation in Congress and the British Parliament’s refusal to back military action were part of a sea-change in world attitudes.

“That reflected a war-weariness in that whole region – Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and the violence that erupted after the Egyptian revolution,” he said. Armed intervention in Syria seemed likely to spiral into wider conflict.

“Just looking at the prospect is like staring over the precipice. It looks very bleak,” Cortright said.

“Faced with that kind of prospect, I think, in Moscow, in Iran, in the U.S, certainly in the U.K., you’re seeing political leaders and the public” looking favorably on the alternative of negotiation.

Cortright thinks Obama’s decision to ask Congress for approval of any military action was a wise choice.

“This was not the normal procedure. Presidents say they have the right to use force, and they usually do.”

Among other things, that gave everyone time to think.

“The whole theory of democracy is, it creates time for a decision – time for considered judgment before we rush ahead, not the caprice of monarchs.”

Now, Cortright sees the Syrian negotiations, as well as the potential thaw in relations between the U.S. and Iran, as “a head-spinning moment” for diplomacy.

Like making war, diplomacy is a skill that is studied and taught. It goes by many names – conflict prevention, mediation, peace building – and it includes a range of solutions.

Peacemakers “are trained to look at the dynamics of a policy, look at the alternatives,” Toole said. In the Bosnian war, for instance, it was dividing the country into two pieces.

“Sometimes it’s a power-sharing agreement, sometimes it’s an agreement to let one side have the prime minister’s spot and one side have the presidency, or to switch presidents every other year, or to reserve a certain number of seats in the parliament for the opposition.”

Sometimes it’s offhandedly bringing up a proposal to scrap a weapons program, as Kerry did in the current crisis.

“When you study this stuff and get to know the alternatives, you’re not just starting from scratch, you’re starting from a template,” Toole said. “A skilled diplomat takes the alternatives and tries to push one into an agreement.”

Also vital is having a sense of a nation’s culture, knowledge of its language and the nature of the leaders you’re dealing with. There’s common agreement that the lack of that kind of knowledge was one reason we went astray in Iraq. U.S. services have more people who speak Arabic now.

“That,” Toole says, “was a lesson we really learned.”

Toole also sees Wikileaks-style outings of back-channel information as a threat to the kind of efforts that may have averted armed confrontation with Syria.

“In some ways, secrecy is absolutely essential to diplomacy,” he said. “Diplomacy is impossible if you lay all your cards on the table.”

Tim Harmon, an editorial writer, has been a journalist since 1976. Most of his career has been at Indiana newspapers. He can be reached 260-461-8343 or by email, tharmon@jg.net.

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