William Faulkner's most brilliant insight was his quip that "The past is never dead, it is not even past." It is the past that is now befuddling the most strategic thinkers in President Obama's administration as well as the bevy of deep thinkers at Harvard and other universities and think tanks as regards the quagmire in Syria.
I have witnessed some of the best minds at Harvard and former top U.S. officials offer conflicting opinions on how to make the best of a very bad situation. But few have talked about how President Obama and Prime Minister of Great Britain, David Cameron are shackled by the follies of George W. Bush and Tony Blair in Iraq that cost needlessly so much blood and treasure.
The far-too-long war in Afghanistan has also added to the past shackling the present. Those follies are, in my view, the main reason for the negative votes against military intervention in the British Parliament and would most likely also would be the same outcome if there was a vote in Congress for any form of limited military action in Syria. Both leaders felt bound to show their democratic credentials by seeking the will of their citizens' representatives rather than using their prerogative and constitutional powers to initiate military action without such larger legislative buy-in.
President Putin, the wily ex-KGB leader, saw the potential trap the U.S. in the Syrian quagmire by conspiring with Assad, the Syrian figurehead leader to propose a non-military option that will most likely guarantee the continuation of Putin's murderous client regime in Damascus.
It must be kept in mind that over 98 per cent of some 120,000 civilians killed so far was by conventional weapons. The agreement to put Syrian chemical weapons under international control and ultimately destroy them will allow the Assad regime to keep on killing thousands more with conventional weapons a significant number purchased from Russia.
In his plea to the American people in the New York Times for the U.S. to abide by international law and accept the leadership of the UN Security Council, President Putin fails to disclose how his own government has undermined the credibility of the UN Security Council in having any impact on the suffering of civilians in Syria.
Indeed, astonishingly in the New York Times, he still blames the chemical weapons attack on the rebels, yet offers absolutely no proof in comparison with the evidence produced by the US and likely by the UN chemical weapons inspectors themselves. Indeed it was Russia, along with the Assad regime itself that had not allowed the UN Security Council to order immediate access to the site so that better evidence of the perpetrators could be brought out.
If Putin and his friends in Syria are convinced it was the rebels who initiated the chemical strike, they should have been the first to allow the inspectors to come immediately. He also failed to mention that the Russia refused to allow the UN Security Council to submit the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court so that those culpable, on all sides, of the most serious international crimes could be brought to justice.
Yet, President Obama, Prime Minister Cameron and their allies can still shake off the follies of the past that still bedevil them. They can put Putin's and Russia]s real commitment to the non-military solution and an ultimate resolution of the conflict by putting forward UN Security Council resolutions for humanitarian ceasefires and safe passage routes in growing areas where civilians, including children are in danger of starvation as the Assad forces cut vital supply lines. Harrowing accounts of deliberate attempts to starve the rebels are coming out of some of these areas, including in the town of Mouadamiya.
In addition, there should be responses to the growing evidence that the Assad regime has deliberately scattered the chemical weapons to some 50 sites even while a deal was being reached between Russia and the U.S. to identify and destroy or remove its entire stockpile of chemical weapons by mid-2014. There is authority for the UN Security Council to enforce this framework agreement under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter that includes the use of force if there is no veto from the permanent five members.
Given this hide-and-seek with these weapons, the chemical weapons inspectors may find it difficult to attain their goals by the deadline. At the first concrete examples of the Saddam Hussein-type tactics to frustrate the inspectors, the US and its allies should step up the pressure in the UN Security Council to impose increasingly more stringent sanctions on the Assad regime, including arms embargoes from regional allies.
Western countries can further try to shake off the follies of George W. Bush and Tony Blair by also attempting to get worldwide support for new approaches to operationalizing the Responsibility to Protect doctrine through global protocols on ceasing of weapon sales to governments that commit gross violations of international humanitarian law and what legitimate steps that the international community can take when the UN Security Council has shown itself incapable of fulfilling its primary duty of protecting international peace and security including preventing mass atrocities due to the irresponsible use of the veto by one or more permanent members. For the sake of the past which is never dead, it is time to collar the bear.
Errol Mendes is a professor of international and human rights law at the University of Ottawa and a Visiting Fellow at Harvard Law School. His latest book, "Global Governance, Human Rights and International Law" will be published in early 2014, by Routledge, New York and London.