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Could Russia-U.S. Deal on Syria Chemical Weapons Lead to a Non-Imperial, New Internationalism?

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The United States, France and Britain have agreed to seek a “strong and robust” U.N. resolution that sets precise and binding deadlines on removal of chemical weapons in Syria. The announcement comes two days after the United States and Russia brokered a deal for Syria to surrender its full chemical weapons arsenal by mid-2014. We speak to The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel, who has covered Russia for years, and Boston University Professor Andrew Bacevich, author of “Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country.”

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StorySep 29, 2015Obama & Putin Spar at U.N.: Will Regime Change in Syria Further Destabilize War-Torn Nation?
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The United States, France and Britain have agreed to seek a, quote, “strong and robust” U.N. resolution that sets precise and binding deadlines on removal of chemical weapons in Syria. The announcement comes two days after the United States and Russia brokered a deal on Syria to remove or destroy its full chemical weapons arsenal by mid-2014. Under the agreement, Syria must also provide a full inventory of its chemical weapons within one week and destroy equipment for producing chemical weapons and filling munitions with poison gas by November. On Saturday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, announced the deal at a joint news conference that came after three days of talks in Geneva, Switzerland.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: We are committed to try to work together, beginning with this initiative on the chemical weapons, in hopes that those efforts could pay off and bring peace and stability to a war-torn part of the world. And I think we would both agree that we had constructive conversations regarding that, but those conversations are continuing, and both of us want to get back to them now.

FOREIGN MINISTER SERGEY LAVROV: We’re here, basically, to discuss the issue of chemical weapons in Syria. Now that the Assad government joined the chemical weapons convention, we have to engage our professionals, together with the Chemical Weapons Prohibition Organization, as we agreed, with the United Nations, to design a road which would make sure that this issue is resolved quickly, professionally, as soon as practical.

AMY GOODMAN: The Syrian government has welcomed the agreement, and the U.N. confirmed Saturday it had received all documents necessary for the country to join the chemical weapons convention, which it will do starting mid-October. Meanwhile, Syria’s main opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, has rejected the Geneva chemical weapons deal, claiming it will embolden the Syrian government to escalate its military offensive. On Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated the use of unilateral American military force was still on the table if Syria fails to follow through.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: Now, this will only be as effective as its implementation will be, and President Obama has made it clear that to accomplish that, the threat of force remains. The threat of force is real, and the Assad regime and all those taking part need to understand that President Obama and the United States are committed to achieve this goal.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined now by two guests. Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of The Nation. She blogs at thenation.com, is a columnist also for the washingtonpost.com. Katrina vanden Heuvel has reported on Russia for decades and recently co-wrote an article called “Syria: The Alternative to War.” And we’re joined by Andrew Bacevich, professor of history and international relations at Boston University, military historian, Vietnam veteran, who’s written several books, most recently, Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country.

Welcome you both to Democracy Now!



AMY GOODMAN: Katrina, let’s begin with you. Take us back. A lot has happened over the last few days. How did this happen, this agreement between the United States and Russia?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Well, first of all, it’s very good to see the drumbeat of diplomacy and not the drumbeat of war, because I’d argue in the post-Cold-War-world period we’ve seen too much and too quick a resort to military force and not diplomacy.

I think we’re hearing different stories, and there’s a need for more reporting on how this proposal actually emerged. I’ve been reading a little bit in the Russian press. Foreign Minister Lavrov had an interview in a newspaper—sorry, on a TV channel called Vesti. There’s a lot of talk about how Putin and President Obama, almost more than a year ago in Mexico, in Los Cabos, began to discuss this proposal, and then, of course, at the G-20 meeting in Saint Petersburg a few weeks ago. So, it’s been on the table. And I think this idea that Secretary of State Kerry made a gaffe is not plausible. I think there has been real discussion of this. And you saw in those images of Secretary of State Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov someone sitting in between them. It was a very interesting man named is Lakhdar Brahimi, who is the U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria to resolve the conflict. And this Geneva peace process has been going on.

So, I think what’s been too often ignored in the media here, because there’s so much attention to the leader, Putin—we don’t often hear him in the denigration of Putin—is that Russia also has a vital interest in finding a way to resolve politically the conflict in Syria, because they don’t want to see chemical weapons awash in the Middle East, they don’t want to see extremists spreading beyond Syria’s borders, and they see the Arab Awakening in a very different light. So I think, finally, you see national security interests aligned, and I think it’s a critical—possibly critical—turning point in international relations to see a revival of a much-needed U.S.-Russian cooperative relationship that has been lost in the last decade.

AMY GOODMAN: Of course, the gaffe, or the not-gaffe, that you’re referring to of John Kerry’s was when he went on the air and when a reporter asked him—


AMY GOODMAN: —what could Syria do to avoid a U.S. military strike.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Right. And, I mean, the idea of putting chemical weapons, Syria’s chemical weapons, under international control and beginning the dismantling and destruction of those chemical weapons is a far more effective deterrent than might have been these limited military strikes that the U.S. was proposing. So, clearly, I think this has been discussed. In fact, there was a piece of legislation in Congress, strangely, from Senator Manchin—Senators Manchin and Heitkamp on the eve of what might have been the debate in Congress on the road to authorization of military strikes, similar to this, which was to give Assad 45 days to agree to sign the chemical weapons convention and destroy and dismantle his weapons. But this is a far more effective one, because it also—and Professor Bacevich could speak more to this, but I think it’s very important that it could also revive the role and legitimacy of the United Nations, which, as an institution, is too often dismissed in this country, but I think it still plays a vital role in matters of war and peace, if we want to avoid military conflicts. And a U.S.-Russian relation, a more productive U.S.-Russian relationship, is key to that, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it’s interesting that President Obama was invoking international law, which many would say is a good thing to do, to justify a U.S. military strike, but now it’s being used—

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Now it’s being used—I mean, he was—he was using international law, in some ways, to violate international law, in this talk of how, you know, enforcing the norms against chemical weapons, there are other ways. But now it’s being used—and there will be disputes along the road. I mean, the idea of moving toward some of this process of documenting the stockpiled materials, dismantling by mid-2014, those who know far more about this process understand how aggressively quick that is. I mean, the United States and Russia still haven’t fully complied with the chemical weapons convention. They still have chemical weapons.

However, Sergey Lavrov is an interesting figure because he was the Russian ambassador to the United Nations during the Iraq process. He has worked closely with key weapons inspectors, like Charles Duelfer, Hans Blix. He follows this. And I think it will be key to put together an inspection team that understands the need to move.

And we need to test Russia’s resolve, too. So this idea that, oh, this is so dangerous because Russia is a rogue actor, which you hear in the sort of anti-Russian pro-war lobbies in this country—let’s test Russia’s resolve. This is a moment to put Putin and Russia’s credibility on the line in terms of moving toward this. And let’s see the U.S. and how it can move forward.

The one dispute that we will see emerge—and both Lavrov and Kerry have tried to alight it—is the issue of Article 7 in the U.N. Charter and whether that—what kind of force that might mean if there is noncompliance. It could well mean just sanctions. It does not need to mean military strikes.

AMY GOODMAN: Vice President Joe Biden said Sunday the national interest drove Russian President Vladimir Putin to propose the Syrian disarmament agreement that’s averted the U.S. strikes, at least for now.

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: When the president went to the G8 after a long discussion that’s happened before he got in the helicopter, he’s the one who raised with Putin why don’t we jointly—why don’t we jointly—why don’t we jointly, since it’s not in either of our interests to allow this largest stockpile in the world to go unattended, why don’t we jointly move to the United Nations and jointly secure it and destroy it? A lot of cynics were of the view that Putin would not respond. But he did respond, not because he’s a good guy, because this is a naked self-interest, the naked self-interest of Russia to see these weapons not fall in anyone’s hands.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Bacevich, that was Vice President Biden in Iowa on Sunday. This self-interest of both countries, as opposed to relying on their well—good intentions?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, rightly so. I have to say that I think—I think I’m a little less optimistic than Katrina is about this leading to some larger benefit. I mean, let’s assume—and it’s only an assumption—that the deal is actually going to work out, that the Syrians will comply. And it’s not—the Syrian government is not a puppet of the Russians; they have their own interests. But let’s assume that the chemical weapons deal actually pans out and this very ambitious schedule—


ANDREW BACEVICH: —by next year, can actually be met. That really doesn’t get to the crucial issue. I mean, Assad used chemical weapons because he’s in the midst of fighting a brutal and bloody civil war. This does not resolve the civil war. In some respects, I think that the focus—shifting the focus to chemical weapons, and this promising development, causes us to take our eye off the ball. The civil war is going to continue. And quite frankly, I would expect that the hawks in our country will, you know, pocket the chemical weapons deal and then begin to beat the war drums again, insisting that the United States can’t stand by and allow Assad to continue to wage war against his own people. So, I think that there’s a lot—there’s a lot more to this story that’s going to develop. And—

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: There is—there is the hope, in this emerging U.S.-Russian relationship that has come out of what has been a Cold War period, of moving toward the reviving the Geneva peace process and a political settlement to resolve the civil war. I agree with you that if it ends just even at this very ambitious chemical weapons proposal and compliance component, it doesn’t deal with the underlying problems. But to deal with the underlying problems, you have to resolve some of the relationship problems between the United States and Russia.

ANDREW BACEVICH: But we—you know, we have—I, myself, at least, have no understanding of what kind of dialogue has been going on between Syria and Russia on this matter. I mean, if I put myself in Assad’s shoes, Putin wants me to play along with this, to cooperate in destroying my chemical weapons. Seems to me Assad would say, “Well, what do I get?” And if I were Assad, I’d be asking for continued Russian support in terms of conventional weapons to enable me to continue the civil war. And, of course, even as the United States is claiming a diplomatic triumph, we are increasing our efforts to support the militants. So, again, this is a good thing. Avoiding a U.S. military strike is a good thing. But I’m not persuaded that it’s going to be a sort of turning point that most of the reporting suggests it might be.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: I’m certainly not an optimist when it comes to U.S.-Russian relations. I’m skeptical. But I do believe that this is a—we haven’t seen anything like this in over a decade, and there’s a real possibility. Russia, by the way, has not—they fulfilled the existing military contracts, but they have not supplied these anti-air—the aircraft. So I think—you know, I think the peace conference process that could emerge from this could well grapple with some of the issues you’re talking about.

I definitely think that in this country we already see attacks on this agreement. I mean, you knew it was a pretty good agreement when Senator McCain and Senator Graham jumped five minutes afterwards to say, “This isn’t going to work. This is appeasement.” There is a ferocious anti-Russian, pro-war lobby in this country. But, as Ronald Reagan once said about Mikhail Gorbachev, I wouldn’t say trust, but verify. But I would say test, test, test. And in that testing of Russia, we’ll also be testing its relationship with Assad and testing our relationship with the rebels, which could well break the possibility of a peace agreement.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, doesn’t the U.S. also have some leverage here on the side of the rebels? I mean, the U.S.—the major force behind many of the rebels is Saudi Arabia.


AMY GOODMAN: And the former Saudi ambassador to the United States, Bandar, he has been pressing the U.S. to get militarily involved, as the U.S. presses Russia to press Syria. Can’t the U.S. turn this around and press Saudi Arabia?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Could, I think. But there was an interesting report in today’s New York Times about the militants and the militant reaction to this, and they think they’ve been hung out to dry. I mean, to resolve the core issue between Assad and the militants presumes that on both sides there is a willingness to seek some sort of a settlement, to cut a deal. And I don’t claim any expertise in what the militants are all about, but I’ve seen no evidence that they are willing to negotiate with Assad.


ANDREW BACEVICH: They want him gone. They want this—


ANDREW BACEVICH: —this regime removed.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: I think, just geopolitically, stepping back for a moment, one element of the revived U.S.-Russian cooperative relationship, if it holds, is also Iran. I mean, you have to engage Russia in resolving Iran. And this could be the precursor toward something that is non-military. It could be. So I think that, you know, in addition, something you’ve written about, Professor Bacevich, Russia, we forget, you know, President Putin was the first to call President George W. Bush after 9/11 and offer Russian assistance. He permitted U.S. military bases in Central Asia. He has—Russia has assisted the United States with transit in and out of Afghanistan. As the U.S. extricates itself from Afghanistan, that relationship becomes important. So there are various points where I think you keep that together, and then you work out—I think Russia probably would, in some ways, like to get rid of Assad. The regime change politics of the United States over the last decade has been one of the sticking points, major sticking points, in the way Putin views U.S. policies in the world. As I said earlier, the media in this country in this last week and after Putin’s op-ed in The New York Times, it’s been like horse race coverage, right? Putin has poked Obama in the eye. I mean, give me a break. These are matters of war and peace. And the idea of who’s up, who’s down—and you could even see Kerry and Lavrov and Biden trying to finesse that, because that’s not what’s needed at this moment. What’s needed is substantive discussion of substantive issues, and not who’s up, who’s down.

AMY GOODMAN: There’s also a new president of Iran, right?


AMY GOODMAN: And he, Hassan Rouhani, will be speaking the same day, next week, at the United Nations—


AMY GOODMAN: —as President Obama, and has signaled he wants something new, a new approach to the United States. But is this so much Russia bailing the U.S. out as it is people in the United States—I won’t even say the peace movement, because it’s less formal than that—the overwhelming number of Americans who said no to war, and Obama needed a way out? I mean, I think back to Iraq 10 years ago, and all of the countries who had their plans proposed, they were just pooh-poohed, and the corporate media always would not even report them. So this is just taking one of those plans presented, because Obama saw the wall he faced, Republican and Democrat—


AMY GOODMAN: —in fact, many, many Democrats. Professor Bacevich?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Yeah. Katrina knows Russian politics so much better than I do, but certainly in the media Putin is portrayed as this kind of thuggish figure who’s bearing his chest literally. But I think he’s also an incredibly shrewd politician, and he recognized that the opportunity was available to throw President Obama a lifeline when the president found himself really in an utterly exposed position with no international—virtually no international support, very little domestic support. Putin throws him the lifeline to allow the president to back away from this threat to use force. And in so doing, Putin now elevates himself on the world stage into being a significant statesman.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Putin is neither a democratic nor a virtuous leader, but he is a geopolitical tactician. My husband, Stephen Cohen, has a piece at thenation.com today called “Demonizing Putin Endangers U.S. Security,” and I think it’s worth looking at, because our media is so hung up on these images of Putin on the horseback and that he’s a KGB thug.

But I think you make a very good point, Amy, and I didn’t bring it up because it was U.S.-Russia relations, but, you know, there’s so much talk about the use of force and how that was the credibility issue that moved us here. There was also the democracy threat. There was the democracy of people standing up. One would hope a more—an antiwar movement, but war-weary Americans, for reasons President—Professor Bacevich has documented in his book. So across the board you had a sense in this country, people—people, wise, not the elites, people say no to war.

There was also, I think, a very important moment in Britain, when the Parliament voted—


KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: —not to go to—not to join the United States. That special relationship—


KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: —has defined the U.S. going to war, into military action, certainly in Iraq. Poodle Tony Blair was, you know, a critical element of that. I will say that at The Nation we’re very proud of our former Nation intern who heads the Labour Party, Edward Miliband, for having understood that the poisoning of the well of Iraq was one that the British people also understood. So I hope, as during Iraq there was talk of the other superpower, those millions in the streets, that this is a moment—and again, Professor Bacevich could speak to this, because he’s been writing about it—it seems to me it’s a moment for an opening for a new foreign policy, a new national security. Now you will accuse me of being hopeful, because there is a deep state in this country. We see it in the surveillance state. But there is a sense among American people, it seems to me, not of isolationism, but of a new internationalism that is not defined by military strikes, by drones, certainly not by land wars anymore. And to seize that non-imperial, democratic narrative of a new national security foreign policy seems key.

ANDREW BACEVICH: You are optimistic and hopeful, and I would like to share that, but what we need to see then is somebody on the national stage who will champion that cause.


ANDREW BACEVICH: Who is the influential member of the Senate or somewhere in our political elite who’s going to stand up and say, 'Yes, this is the crusade I'm going to lead’? And I just don’t see that figure.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: I agree. On the other hand, I do believe that so much of the change in our country has come from social movements, and then social movements finding inside the political system someone who will be pushed and moved and speak and articulate those ideas. And I agree with you, we need that, because, certainly, I do think we’ve seen a rebuke of the kind of the neo-imperial, the neoliberal foreign policy in this last period. It may—but it’s powerful. It’s powerful bipartisan—

ANDREW BACEVICH: Sadly, that person who was supposed to be that champion was Barack Obama. I mean, he was supposed to be the agent of change. And I voted for the guy twice, but—

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: I do think there’s—

ANDREW BACEVICH: —he’s proven to be a disappointment and, quite frankly, almost sort of out of his depth in trying to deal with these international issues.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: I do think credit should be given, I mean, to a point. He needed a lifeline, so going to Congress was also that, in a way.


KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: And, by the way, we should have a president who goes to Congress to seek declarations of war by the Constitution.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Yes, we should.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: On the other hand, he was nimble. He was nimble, it seems to me, in seizing this moment. And, you know, we’ve had presidents who would have just hunkered down, because of credibility, because as you well know, inside the Beltway, how do people measure credibility? Boldness often means just—

ANDREW BACEVICH: Go bomb somebody.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: —go bomb—go bomb somebody. And we need to redefine credibility.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, Katrina vanden Heuvel, for being with us, editor and publisher of The Nation magazine. Professor Bacevich, I’d like to ask you to stay after break to talk about Breach of Trust, your new book. And then we’re going to hear from Angela Davis on this 50th anniversary of the bombing of the Birmingham church. Stay with us.

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