It’s hard to recall a more pathetic spectacle in the annals of American national security than President Obama trying in a speech to the nation to talk his way out of his proposed war in Syria via a transparently cynical Russian diplomatic initiative. There have been more damaging episodes, but perhaps none quite as cringe-inducing.
The president made a case for action, pounding his chest about the U.S. military not doing pinpricks, and then reverted to the unworkable Putin proposal as just the thing to defuse the crisis. He elided the fact that the plan — such as it is — issued from John Kerry’s gaffe in speaking off the cuff about how Syria could avoid a strike by giving up its chemical weapons. Kerry then added the important and sensible caveat that such a scheme wouldn’t work.
Given the extent of Syria’s chemical weapons (hundreds of tons), the state of the country (ravaged by civil war), and the sincerity of the Assad regime and the Kremlin (nil), Kerry will surely be proved out. But such was the desperation of the administration that it has grasped this tenuous lifeline to keep its head above water a few more days, hoping that attention to the matter will fade and it will never have to hear the phrase “red line” again.
The Russians have acted with a deftness and cold-eyed attention to their interests that are needed in Foggy Bottom. After decades of exclusion from the Middle East, Russia is now back in the game. It will ensure that its Syrian client state pays no real price for its use of chemical weapons. And it is in position to repeat its role as bad-faith interlocutor in nuclear negotiations between a hapless United States and Iran.
President Obama gave up the initiative on Syria as soon as he decided over Labor Day weekend to go to Congress for authorization for a strike, in what was supposedly a fit of democratic scruple. The seat-of-his-pants reversal signaled irresolution, and in the days ahead, his administration’s ambiguous case for war verged at times on the ridiculous. The more he and his team talked, the more altitude they lost. But the public is so exhausted with the Middle East that their arguments could have been airtight and they still would have made little or no headway. Facing near-certain defeat in Congress, he found the Putin escape hatch.
Make no mistake: Everyone around the world — our adversaries and our allies — knows who blinked. In supporting a strike, we warned that a failure to act would lead to a loss of U.S. credibility. This deal is the immediate, concrete expression of that loss, with Putin elevated, Assad more secure, and Obama humiliated.
Some opponents of a strike argued that Assad would suffer nothing important from it, continue to deploy chemical weapons, and gain prestige from withstanding the military might of the United States. Assad evidently disagreed. That the Syrian regime has now admitted that it has chemical weapons (after long denials), and feels compelled to play along with the disarmament plan, shows that the mere presence of U.S. warships off its shores concentrated the mind.
American power is a fearsome thing. But the American presidency at the moment, occupied by a rank amateur, is not.