Gordon Campbell on dialling back the anti-Key rhetoric, and the Putin Plan For Syria

It goes without saying that Labour supporters don’t like Prime Minister John Key very much. And since it will be Labour Party members, unions and Labour MPs who will decide the leadership contest, it was inevitable that hating on John Key would become a default option, and an easy way of looking staunch. Yet to outsiders, the fixation the three contenders seem to have with the taking down of John Key – up to and including Shane Jones’ rant last week about torturing his testicles – is kind of embarrassing. Hopefully, it has just been campaign rhetoric. Because if the successful candidate wants to reach a wider audience and win the 2014 election, Labour will need to dial it back. Hating on Tony Abbott didn’t work for Kevin Rudd, and demonising Barack Obama didn’t do it for Mitt Romney. If you focus on your opponent before you have established your credentials, all you do is invite an invidious comparison. All you get is blowback.

That said, how should the new Labour leader deal with Key? Arguably, the best way of dealing with him is to talk past him – by treating Key as a pleasant lightweight who isn’t up the task of dealing with the problems facing the country. The evidence has been piling up for months. Rather than inflate Key with invective, Labour should deflate him as irrelevant to the solutions needed. He’s had five years – he’s plainly not up to it. He should step aside, and let someone else take the helm. That doesn’t mean totally ignoring him. In Question Time, the new Labour leader will have to match Key in debate, and not be rattled by him. There’s a risk of appearing arrogant and above the fray. But in reality, Key is far more popular than his policies – so running an anti-presidential campaign and talking past his personality to those policies will minimise Key, and offer more chance of connecting with the wider public. There are also game-changing steps that the new Labour leader can take once it is clear, after Sunday, just who that will be. But after Sunday…enough of the singing to the choir and the insular, empty hating on John Key. It’s childish, and looks really dorky.

If anyone was writing political drama/comedy for television, the twists and turns in the Syrian chemical weapons saga over the past few weeks have offered the kind of material that makes satire irrelevant. First, we had David Cameron losing a vote in the UK Parliament over endorsing a military strike. We had a Pentagon and a White House reluctant to mount a military strike that would primarily aid rebels who hate America, and risk embroiling the US in yet another disastrous war where the US has no friends, or compelling interests at stake. Yet politically, the White House had to do something about the gas attack, right? All of its posturing, though, was turning to custard. As of next week, US President Barack Obama looked set to lose – by a whopping 6 to 1 margin – a House vote authorising a military strike on Syria. In the Senate, even Obama’s formerly solid bi-partisan support suddenly looked like falling short of the 60 votes needed for authorisation. What a mess.

And then…. just in time, who came riding to the rescue? Who bailed out a US President reluctantly pursuing a dubious military option and who was about to be humiliated in Congress? Why, Vladimir Putin – whose Foreign Minister picked up a random remark made to a reporter in London by US Secretary of State John Kerry, and ran with it. Obama grabbed at the Putin Plan like a drowning man grabs a life-raft. Yeah, let’s gather up all of Assad’s chemical weapons and destroy them under international supervision. More than anything, let’s delay those votes in Congress.

The Putin Plan is a crazy idea, but one with just enough semblance of statesmanship to pass muster. Crazy because there’s a civil war raging in Syria. Not a good time to be trying to gather Assad’s stock of chemical weapons into warehouses where they can be inspected and destroyed by international monitors. Even if the weapons – all the WMD weapons – could be located and handed over…for any rebels standing by the side of the road with a rocket launcher, it would be all their dreams come true. Do they fire it at the trucks, or at the storage facilities, or at the hundreds of foreign inspectors and dismantlement experts?

The experts to destroy the weapons would (a) take time to deploy and up to a decade to complete their tasks and (b) require US, European and/or Russian boots on the ground to supervise the work. Guess who the al-Qaeda elements among the rebels will be shooting at and/or kidnapping and guess how willing Congress or Germany or NATO would be to put any US/European troops in harm’s way in Syria to carry out this operation? (New Zealand would be the only country dumb enough to volunteer.) But that doesn’t really matter. It will take months for nothing much to happen, and the maintenance of inertia is often the purpose of diplomacy. As Juan Cole points out, the best thing about Putin’s plan is that its impracticality will take a while to emerge.

Putin’s gambit is irresistible to the West, even if it amounts to nothing. After all, it will take time to amount to nothing, and with the passage of time the urgency of military action (already low) will dissipate irrevocably. The Russian initiative is not attractive because it seems practical or likely to be swiftly implemented but because it allows everyone involved to save face. Obama can look statesmanlike. He is already taking credit for Putin’s move, saying it would not have come about without his own saber-rattling. The US Congress might be able to avoid the uncomfortable position of agreeing that Syria is guilty of chemical weapons use but declining to do anything about it…All this is good news for Western politicians and bad news for the Syrian rebels, who are denouncing the Russian initiative as mendacious. They had hoped that the US would degrade some key regime capabilities, especially the bombing of airports that the regime uses to re-supply its troops. Of course, even before the Putin Plan, it was increasingly unlikely that Obama would gain authorization for such a step, in any case.

But who cares about the Syrian rebels? Only their al-Qaeda and conservative Saudi paymasters. Never before has so much tough talking been done, to such little effect. Meanwhile, the conventional war grinds on. Syria has now dissolved into three cantons (regime held, rebel held, Kurd held) and in the ensuing tit for tat warfare, the country’s Christian heritage is being reduced to dust. The Crac des Cavaliers fort (a UNESCO World Heritage site and a major tourist attraction beforehand) has already been bombed by the regime after the rebels briefly set up base there, and the ancient Christian town of Ma’loula is now suffering a similar fate.

This town had no strategic value. Its history and cave networks predate Christianity, and Ma’loula and a couple of neighbouring villages are the only places on earth where the pre-Christian Aramaic language is still spoken. A few weeks ago the war descended on the town’s residents, who had just wanted to be left alone. Ma’loula was taken over by a ragtag bunch of Islamic fundamentalist rebels merely because it could be – and as a consequence, it has been pummelled by the regime forces ever since. Nothing in the Putin Plan or in the West’s pantomine of anxiety over chemical weapons will help the residents of Ma’loula.