As President Obama prepares to go on the airwaves to seek support for a military attack on Syria, a new development has entered the equation. A new Russian proposal would have international monitors take control of Syria’s chemical weapons, offering everybody involved a face-saving way out.
For the president, the Russian plan is a lifeline. Having been trapped by his own pledge to become involved in Syria’s civil war if dictator Bashir al-Assad used chemical weapons— which hawks like Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) and his protege, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-South Carolina) have used to put constant pressure on him—Obama needed a way out to avoid an unpopular attack. He made a smart political move to put the onus on Congress—which, importantly, broke a longstanding precedent of presidents violating Congress’s constitutional war-making prerogative—but this gives him an opportunity to get out of the trick bag cleanly.
If the deal happens, and Syria gives up its chemical weapons, President Obama can say—probably not without justification—that his threats of force brought the Syrians to heel. He will have won, through a triumph of pressure diplomacy and the happy coincidence of the Russians saving his political bacon, a diplomatic triumph without firing a shot. One wonders if he and Russian president Vladimir Putin didn’t cook this up during the recent G-20 summit in St. Petersburg. If so, it was a brilliant move by both presidents. It gets Obama out of a political mess at home, and it makes Putin look like a positive contributor to the global diplomatic scene—not exactly a familiar role for the often-criticized, autocratic Russian leader.
In fact, it is probably Putin who comes out the big winner here. It’s a PR coup for him, at home and abroad; this marks a major return to the world leadership arena for a country that has suffered a crisis of confidence since losing the Cold War and seeing the Soviet empire break apart at the seams. Putin can make the case that Russia is back on the world stage—if not quite at the top, then at least near the head of the table.
But even if Putin is the big winner, Obama can also come out smelling like a rose too, which seemed impossible just a day ago.
I have been a harsh critic of the president’s push for military intervention in Syria over the last few weeks. But maybe I was wrong. Maybe he was gambling that mere bluster and threats would win the day, and he wouldn’t have the need to actually engage militarily. I obviously have no idea, but if that was his plan, it wouldn’t be the first time Obama was playing chess while everyone else was playing tic-tac-toe.
Assuming the Syrian government takes the deal—and it would probably be stupid not to, because what it gives up in chemical weapons, the Russians will more than make up for with conventional ones—it looks like this thing may have just come together as well as possible, and that rarely happens by accident. The only losers here appear to be the Syrian rebels, and given the uncertain character and composition of their movement, that may not be a terrible thing. Assad’s a bad guy, sure, but sometimes the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.