Should U.S. Spend More Time Working Out ‘Diplomatic Architecture’ on Syria?

Should the Obama administration ditch its unilateral approach and "step up the diplomacy" to work with the international community? Judy Woodruff talks to former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and Christopher Hill, a former senior diplomat, about what the U.S. should do to help influence the future in Syria.

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    For more on the challenges ahead for President Obama at the G20 and here at home, I'm joined now by former National Security Adviser to both Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush General Brent Scowcroft, and Christopher Hill, a former diplomat who served as special envoy to Kosovo while the U.S. intervened in that conflict in the 1990s.

    Gentlemen, welcome to you both.

    General Scowcroft, to you first.

    First, let me just understand where the two of you are coming from. Do you think an attack on — a strike on Syria right now is the right thing to do for the United States?

    BRENT SCOWCROFT, former U.S. national security adviser: We have put ourselves in a position where one can argue it is because of the chemical warfare convention, but we have not sought help from anybody to enforce the chemical warfare convention.

    It's not a U.S. treaty. It's an international treaty that says these are terrible weapons of mass destruction and shouldn't be used. We have been unilateral in this. We haven't formally gone to the U.N. We haven't formally gone to NATO. And so, yes, if we're going to enforce it, but if we're going to enforce it, we should do it as a part of the world unity.


    Ambassador Hill, how do you see it? Is this the right thing for the United States to be doing right now?

    CHRISTOPHER HILL, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq: Well, I think it's the right thing in the absence of any alternatives at this point.

    We need to take a stand on the use of chemical weapons, weapons that have been banned for some 80 years, weapons that were never even used in World War II. And so these have been used by Syrian forces. And I think we do need to take action. But I completely share the view that we have not done enough internationally.

    And in trying to talk about it in terms of only weapons and in terms of only chemical weapons, without discussing the Syrian conflict, is really something that people don't really buy that distinction. And the problem with the Syrian conflict and with our — with our activities there is we have had really no diplomacy to try to work through what it is that Syria should be in the future.

    And what really disturbs me lately is the fact that not only do we have a crisis in Syria, but, as a result, we are emerging with a kind of crisis in our relations with Russia and with some other major states. So, we really need to step up the diplomacy to have a way forward on Syria.

    You know, even if al-Assad gets hit by a bus tomorrow, there has to be a future in Syria. And we need to do a much better job of working with the international community to identify what that future should be.


    Well, General Scowcroft, President Obama right now is meeting with leaders of these other countries. Given the lack of diplomatic outreach that you and Ambassador Hill described, what are the arguments? What should President Obama be saying to these other leaders at the G20?


    Well, what he should be saying now is that the Chemical Weapons Convention is a worldwide convention against a horrible weapon, and everybody needs to stand together to do something about it.

    Then the next question is what to do. And I think, you know, the administration has not been very specific about what to do. And I think, if we're going to do something, it has to make a difference, because if it's a slap on the wrist, that merely strengthens Assad, makes the United States look impotent.

    So, if we say we're going to do something about the chemical warfare convention, we need to do something, and it has to make a difference.


    And does what you're hearing from the administration sound like it's more than a slap on the wrist?


    They have been, I think, remarkably silent about what kind of attack it will be.

    They have, with some reluctance, agreed no boots on the ground, but that's about the only restriction they have talked about.


    Ambassador Hill, from your perspective, what should the president be saying right now to these leaders? He's gathered with the leaders of the G20, the Group of 20. What should he be — what argument should he be making that he hasn't made?


    I think he should make precisely the argument that General Scowcroft just outlined.

    Plus, he should be saying that this Syria conflict, if left unattended, is going to have more such outrages. It's already metastasized to the rest of the Middle East. It's affecting many of our interests in that part of the world, and that, therefore, the United States is going to work with like-minded states on coming up with a diplomatic way forward, whether it's coming up with some kind of plan for Syria, that is, Syria should remain within its international borders, Syria should be some kind of federalist state.

    This has nothing to do with whether the parties in Syria could agree to this at this point. It has do with the U.S. being diplomatically committed to working with others to find a future for Syria. I think what a lot of countries looking for is, if you're going to use military, if you're going to use weapons and bombing in the context of — and dropping them on a country, it can't just be in terms of the — of an international agreement.

    It also has to be done in terms of what the political way forward is. And that's where we have essentially told people that we're washing our hands of Syria, that we want Assad to go, and that's that. But I think many people and many — indeed, many leaders in that G20 have real suspicions about what this opposition in Syria would look like, what are their plans, how could they ever take over Syria, and ensure that it would be a better place than it is today.


    Judy, it's remarkable how different we have approached Syria from the way we did in Libya.

    In Libya, we got a U.N. resolution authorizing the use of force to protect civilians. We got a NATO alliance to apply the force. And we got the local regional organization, the Arab League, to support it. That was perfect. Now, what we didn't do in Libya and we're doing now is go to the Congress for authorization.


    To the Congress.

    But isn't the idea of getting the U.N. on board impossible, given the relationship between the — Russia and Syria?


    It is pretty much impossible right now, although even the Russians, I think, would be reluctant to be visibly opposed to supporting the Chemical Weapons Convention.

    But I think, ultimately, the U.S. and Russia agreement on Syria is the best way to stop the fighting.


    But are we talking about something that's purely theoretical here, Ambassador Hill? Because we just saw the reporting from Saint Petersburg. The president, Vladimir Putin, we know those relations are frosty right now. The idea of depending on Russia supporting any U.S. action would be — wouldn't that be tantamount to not doing anything?


    Well, I don't think we're going to get any Russian acquiescence or Russian support, certainly not in the time frames we envision.

    But I think we need to give some reassurances to Russians and elsewhere that we're going to be diplomatically engaged. I really think, as heinous as this al-Assad has been, I think we ought to avoid talking about simply disposing of him as the — as our political way forward.

    I think we need to talk more about how the parties in Syria need to come to terms, if not get around a table — by the way, if you bring them around a table, they will start throwing things at each other. So what you do is try to get them around some ideas. You need to shop some ideas.

    In Kosovo, we had a contact group. In Bosnia, we had a contact group. Those conflicts were not — were not ones that were solved through military action. They were political plans in which military action was there to support. And what we don't here is any kind of political way forward, except to say Assad must go. And I would argue that just saying Assad must go is not going to solve the problems of Syria.


    General — General — I was just going to say, General Scowcroft, are you saying it's too late to get this kind of diplomatic architecture together?


    Well, it's very late.

    But I would remind you that, for a while, we and the Russians had useful discussions about Syria. And then Assad seemed to be doing better, and the Russians didn't see any need to make a deal. But I think we still need to try, because we can't solve the Syrian problem by ourselves. The best thing, I think, the best outcome possible, is to stop the violence and try to resolve the issue without the horrible violence going on now.

    But we're in a very tough position.


    And, just quickly, Ambassador Hill, do you have a sense that there's still a chance to pull together some sort of diplomatic architecture, whatever the word is, that would backstop, that would back up any military action?


    I do, in the sense of, if we're committed to a diplomatic approach — and, by the way, the president has hinted at this in recent — recent public statements — so I think, if we started that, I think that would be a step in the right direction.

    I think people would like to see what we have in mind. I hear people say, well, the time for that was two years ago and it's too late. But, as things are going right now, this conflict is going to be around two years from now. And people will say, well, the time for it was two years ago.

    So, yes, I think it's something we can do, but I think we really have to make it the centerpiece of our strategy, rather than just talking about providing weapons or dropping bombs.


    Ambassador Chris Hill, General Brent Scowcroft, we thank you.


    Thank you, Judy.


    Thank you.