September 25, 2015

How Pope Francis US Visit Can Help Boost Diplomacy and Defeat Militarism

US President Barack Obama (L) greets Pope Francis (R) upon his arrival  September 22, 2015 at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN        (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama (L) greets Pope Francis (R) upon his arrival September 22, 2015 at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Pope Francis’s visit to Washington DC could not have been better timed for the Obama administration. Relations with Cuba have been normalized and the Iran nuclear deal has survived the theatrics of the mandated Congressional review. Pope Francis has of course played an important role in many of these wins for President Barack Obama. He helped with the backchannel diplomacy with Havana, he has endorsed the Iran deal and the White House has reportedly also enlisted his offices to help secure the release of three American citizens imprisoned in Iran.

While the Pope’s assistance in what appears to amount to a prisoner exchange with Iran is both welcomed and necessary, there are two other interrelated issues that deserves some papal nudging.

On the broader level, the Obama administration should seek strong support from the pope on the matter of diplomacy as a principle. The Iran nuclear deal was above all a major victory for a foreign policy paradigm centered on the idea that international conflicts must first and foremost be resolved through dialogue and negotiations, rather than through militarism and coercion.

Many outside of the US may find it perplexing that this even needs to be debated, but the Congressional debate around the Iran nuclear deal revealed the profound opposition that remains within the Washington foreign policy establishment around the notion of negotiating and compromising with one’s adversaries.

As the President said during his address at American University on August 5, security cannot be equated with a perpetual war footing. And while the President clearly intended to ensure that the Iran deal would become more than just a nuclear proliferation deal but rather a milestone in the utility and effectiveness of a foreign policy paradigm centered on diplomacy, the deeper meaning of the success with Iran has largely been lost in the Washington debate.

In what has become emblematic of the current state of intellectual poverty of American politics, the Iran debate centered on conspiracy theories about “secret side deals,” outright distortions of the details of the deal and infantile discussions on the wisdom of striking a deal with a country where hardliners shout slogans against America (because those fear mongering about Iran’s enrichment activities suddenly believed that Iranian slogans are a greater threat than the nuclear program they previously panicked about).

But if intellectual arguments cannot defeat the militaristic foreign policy paradigm (the one that justified preemptive wars and produced the Iraq fiasco), then perhaps religious appeals can.

That’s were Pope Francis comes in.

Parts of America’s foreign policy establishment badly needs to hear this message and Pope Francis is not only the right person to deliver it, he may also be the only one with the authority to reach that segment of the American public susceptible to the false promises of security through war.

Which brings us to the second issue: The one area where diplomacy is more badly needed than anywhere else – indeed, it’s long over due – is the disastrous civil war in Syria.

What originally started as a peaceful movement to seek change in Syria, was soon transformed into a bloody civil war by the Bashar al-Assad government. Soon thereafter, the conflict was transformed once again, into a proxy battle primarily between Saudi Arabia and Iran. As Syria descended into chaos, radical Salafi Jihadist groups who flourish in turmoil ascended and made an already disastrous situation worse.

Hundred of thousands of deaths later, neither side can win the war militarily nor have they shown the courage necessary to pursue genuine diplomacy. That is not to say that diplomatic opportunities have not existed – indeed, several opportunities have been missed. As I pointed out in ForeignPolicy.com in January 2014, the eternal search for gaining the upper hand before going to the negotiating table has ensured that the various sides never are genuinely present at the negotiating table at the same time. And after every missed opportunity, thousands more have died in the ensuing stalemate.

Ellie Geranmayeh explains at Al-Monitor how the Saudi strategy has been to continue the civil war until Assad is sufficiently weakened to force a shift in Tehran and Moscow’s support for Assad. But the opposite is happening. There are few signs that Tehran is decisively scaling back its support for the Syrian government and the Russians have recently moved in militarily to boost the Assad side. The end result of this inevitably will be more deaths and more stalemate. No side can escape responsibility for these dire consequences.

What has fueled the Syrian crises more than anything else is the false illusion on all sides that a decisive military victory is around the corner.

In reality, there is only more bloodshed and suffering around the corner. All sides must be disabused of this illusion, and while Washington was reluctant to push for unconditional talks on Syria while the Iran nuclear talks were ongoing (primarily out of fear of upsetting Riyadh), those inhibitions must now be set aside.

Clearly, diplomacy in Syria carries no promise currently. But neither did diplomacy on the Iran nuclear file at the outset. In fact, for months and years, no significant progress was achieved. It lies in the nature of diplomacy that breakthroughs are difficult to predict. But the mere continuation of talks helped – at a minimum – counter further escalation. It helped create readiness for a breakthrough. In Syria, that can directly translate into saved lives.

Pope Francis surely knows this. So does President Obama. Together, they might be able to convince the other players.

This piece originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

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