President Obama’s flailing incoherence regarding the Syrian conflict has, not surprisingly, been the subject of considerable spin. Last week, for example, when the president decided to seek congressional authorization for military action, he was hailed as a constitutional hero humbly ceding his power to the legislature, when in fact the last-minute decision reportedly stemmed from Obama’s “growing frustration with lawmakers.”
An apparent gaffe by Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this week has now become official U.S. policy. After he told a reporter Monday that Syrian president Bashar Assad might avoid a U.S military strike by immediately turning over “his entire arsenal of chemical weapons,” even though Assad “isn’t about to do it,” and “it can’t be done,” Russia and Syria agreed to talk about disarmament, and Obama has agreed to hear them out. The debate in Congress about whether to authorize military force, which the administration had been losing, badly, has been put on hold.
In light of these developments, the Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan advised readers to “get ready for the spin job of all spin jobs.” This diplomatic solution was made possible only by the credible threat of military action (something that Kerry had promised would be “unbelievably small,” and that Congress was poised to vote down). This was no gaffe, we were reassured — it was crafty statesmanship.
The president’s spinmasters delivered. As BuzzFeed put it: “The Obama administration’s explanation of how a Russian proposal to get rid of Syrian chemical weapons came to be has morphed rapidly in the past 24 hours from being portrayed as an unexpected slip-up to — in its new incarnation — a plan that U.S. officials were involved in as early as last week.”
NPR described the Russian proposal as “a true diplomatic breakthrough long in the making.” Citing unnamed administration officials, the New York Times reported that Kerry’s “seemingly offhand comment” was not the impetus for the disarmament plan, which “had actually grown out of conversations between Mr. Obama and [Russian president Vladimir] Putin going back more than a year.”
It’s a contention that defies credulity, based on the administration’s own actions. Kerry’s statement was immediately dismissed by U.S. officials as a “major goof” and a “rhetorical argument.” Asked if Kerry had presented a legitimate diplomatic proposal, Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken was unequivocal: “No, no, no,” he told reporters on Monday. “We literally just heard about this. . . . We haven’t had a chance to talk to the Russians about it.” The secretary was “speaking hypothetically,” Blinken insisted.
Kerry himself acknowledged as much, telling Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, that his comments were not meant to be taken as an actual proposal, and then expressing “serious skepticism” as soon as the Russians decided to treat it as one. That is, until Kerry testified before the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, when he changed his tune. “I didn’t misspeak,” he said. The Russian proposal was not something that had “suddenly emerged,” but was the result of “some conversations.”
Even The New Republic wasn’t convinced. “What happened was Kerry went off message and . . . blurted out a pie-in-the-sky, hyperbolic idea,” wrote senior editor Julia Ioffe. “But everyone seized on it as a realistic proposal. It’s not.” Plenty of experts agree that the proposal to seize and destroy Assad’s entire arsenal of chemical weapons will not work.
Allies of the president don’t seem so sure, either. One Democratic strategist close to the White House told National Journal’s Ron Fournier, “This has been one of the most humiliating episodes in presidential history.” Ioffe quoted an exasperated congressional staffer who complained about “an unmitigated cluster****.”
Still, many in the media embraced the diplomatic solution and credited Obama’s “threat of force” with bringing it about. “I really wonder if the folks on Capitol Hill can figure out that it is actually the threat of force which has brought the possibility of a diplomatic solution,” Christiane Amanpour mused on CNN.
“[Obama’s] threat of war galvanized the world and America, raised the profile of the issue of chemical weapons more powerfully than ever before,” gushed Andrew Sullivan. Except the only thing the president’s “threat of war” actually galvanized in this country was public and congressional opposition. Few believe his address to the nation on Tuesday has changed many minds.
The administration’s “solution” to the Syrian conflict will almost certainly have to be revisited. But for now, the president has managed to secure a much-needed time-out. At least until the next gaffe.
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.