In a 2010 study tracking 72 married couples on how they forgive each other, Florida State University professor Jim McNulty came to this conclusion: Easy and quick forgiveness won’t hold a partner accountable for bad behavior. His insight might apply to a new, indirect partnership between President Obama and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Mr. Obama, who promised “enormous consequences” last March if Syria used chemical weapons, has now agreed to a shaky deal that would only remove and destroy the current weapons, if at all. Syria has also agreed to abide by the Chemical Weapons Convention. Any American threat of punishment – whether by a military strike or a nonmilitary step such as a severe economic boycott – has been pushed into the future.
With a forbearance bordering on forgiveness, Obama has not caused the Assad regime to suffer or to show the kind of remorse that would hint it will not again use weapons of mass destruction. In fact, on Monday the United States merely repeated the threat of “serious consequences” if Syria fails to comply with the new deal. Russia repeated it would still block United Nations approval of a military strike. And it has rebuffed efforts to prosecute Mr. Assad before the International Criminal Court.
The US-Russian agreement brings only a temporary solution to the crisis. Obama’s leniency runs the risk of encouraging more “obscene” attacks, as Secretary of State John Kerry called the Aug. 21 killing of some 1,400 Syrian civilians with chemical weapons.
“Forgiveness always makes people feel good immediately,” stated Dr. McNulty about his study of married couples, “but the question is what does it do to the person I am forgiving?”
Deterrence is a difficult task when transgressors don’t fear the consequences of their actions or don’t apologize with remorse and compensate their victims in a spirit of repentance.
In 2004, Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi declared his chemical weapons but hid another weaponized stockpile from international inspectors. Iran, too, has played fast and loose with inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency on its nuclear research facilities.
For more than three decades, Syria has developed chemical weapons, using them several times. What makes its verbal commitment to this deal credible without evidence that Assad will now think twice about committing mass atrocities?
Obama has reserved the right to order unilateral military action on Syria. But he faces widespread opposition in Congress and among a majority of Americans. Applying justice in Syria may not be America’s role, but Obama, having twice promised consequences if Assad crossed a red line, has made it his role.
Obama’s patience and willingness to negotiate are commendable. At some point, however, he needs to ask if his new “partner” deserves the tolerance and time to change his ways without the pangs of reprisal. Having broken a moral law encoded in international law, Assad cannot escape moral justice. Obama has pushed for that justice, with only threats and diplomacy for now. Either Assad or Obama will need to act to ensure that justice is done. Let’s hope Assad is the one who does.