One of my favorite political scientists recently said to me that Obama might come out of the Syria debacle “smelling like Christmas”. I have my doubts. It is true, I think, that (courtesy of the Russians) the Administration now has a way out of the fine mess it has gotten itself into. From the LA Times:
WASHINGTON – White House officials say they will “take a hard look” at a Russian offer to push Syria to give up its vast chemical weapons arsenal, a late and unexpected proposal that could provide President Obama a way to avoid a bruising defeat in Congress over use of force…
Kerry said at a news conference in London that Syrian President Bashar Assad could forestall a U.S. attack by giving up his sizable stockpile of chemical weapons immediately. Although the State Department quickly sought to squelch Kerry’s comments as “rhetoric,” not a serious proposal, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov quickly offered to push Assad to agree.
In such a deal, apparently, Assad would turn over his stockpile of chemical weapons to someone, perhaps the Russians. In return, he would be given a pass on the more than a thousand people he has, apparently, murdered with them. If Assad really does give up his stockpile, that would be a significant achievement. If he even pretends to do so (for how can we verify what Assad actually has and where he has it?) the Administration could then claim that it was only its tough stance that brought the settlement about.
It seems pretty clear that this offer came out of the blue. Up until now, no one in the Administration seemed to suggest that Assad could do anything to avoid his deserved punishment. When Secretary of State Kerry mentioned the offer, his staff immediately tried to walk it back. Kerry also said that the strike the Administration was proposing would be “unbelievably small,” which doesn’t really make their position more compelling.
Still, it is difficult to think that the Administration would be so foolish as to reject the offer, given the situation that they are in now. They should promptly take it, avoid the vote in Congress, resolve never to mention Syria again, and put duct tape over Kerry’s mouth.
While this might get Mr. Obama out of his dilemma, I don’t think it would come near to undoing the damage he has done to himself. The President has gone to bat for an amorphous policy generated, ad hoc, at the eleventh hour. In short order he has secured returns of no confidence from the U.N., the G20 Conference, our British allies, and the Pope. Authorization of a military strike by the U.S. Senate is still not a sure thing and a vote in the House looks hopeless. If his media blitz over the weekend has not actually been counterproductive, its benefits seem to be all too believably small.
Meanwhile, there is popular opinion in America. Polling shows that Americans oppose a strike in Syria by two to one margins. The President’s approval rates have descended into the Dubya-digit nether regions. Somewhere between 40 and 45% approve of his job performance, while 48-55% disapprove.
If the President does work out a deal, he will come out of this in better shape than if he launches an unbelievably small strike without Congressional approval or any coalition partners outside Albania or worse, backs away without doing anything. I am pretty sure that the aroma of this incident will still stick to the President and that it would smell like Frankincense and Myrrh.
ps. The Washington Post is very disturbed by the news of this possible "breakthrough" in diplomacy, as the President is now calling the Kerry/Russian deal. They note, correctly, that Assad has used such gambits in the past to avoid international interference and always goes back on the deal. That, of course, is what he will do this time if Mr. Obama backs off.
There’s only one reason an initiative on chemical weapons might turn out differently: a credible threat of military action by the United States. That makes Congress’s vote on a resolution authorizing force all the more important. If the resolution is approved, the administration will have leverage to push through the Russian proposal. If one or both houses of Congress reject the authorization, the Assad regime can be expected to find a way to reject the deal or dodge compliance indefinitely.
Yes, but it works both ways. If it looks like Obama is using the Syrian deal as an escape clause, he will be less likely to get Congressional backing. It does, doesn't it?