It has been barely more than a week since I wrote on Syria and U.S. policy, so-called, toward that issue. I started back on September 3 with an expression of surprise that things could possibly have gotten crazier since having written on August 30. So what am I to say now by way of introduction, after the President and his court, in merely a week between September 4 and September 10, have taken what was already a very ugly policy duckling and turned it into goofy goose with five legs?
Since once again I am late getting to quill and ink, I have the luxury of being able to direct readers to others who have already rendered the observations basic to making sense out of the mayhem of the past several days. I will not do so specifically by naming names, but let me sum up the main points of the wiser commentary I have seen (and I have not seen it all) with a brief over-the-shoulder looking narrative before I point myself forward to the future. This framework narrative proceeds in two phases: the President’s turn to Congress and its dizzy aftermath, followed by the “Russian Option” phase and its very unlikely, but not entirely negative, possibilities.
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The President’s turn to Congress was clearly a somewhat desperate expedient design to relieve the loneliness he felt after the British vote left the United States bereft of kinetic allies (with the possible but ill-defined exception of France). It came so fast and unexpectedly that even the President’s Secretaries of State and Defense were left unconsulted, if not also aghast. But the breathing space it provided quickly closed on account of two factors.
First, the ambiguity over what the President really sought devalued any optic of American resolve. That he wanted breathing room was clear from the fact that he did not call Congress back from recess to vote until, or after, September 9. The ambiguity derived from uncertainty over how the President wanted the vote to come out. Did he want a “no” vote to relieve him of the responsibility to use force to stand behind his own “red line”, something he was obviously leery about from the get-go? Or did he want a “yes” vote, at least from the Senate if not from the House, to use as political leverage against Russians and Syrians, if not also to use courtesy of a shot across the bow to get his reputation out of the crapper (as I so delicately called it at the end of my September 3 post)? Well, the fact that no one was quite sure turned into an accent over an already yawning ambiguity, which did not help matters one whit.
Even before the President set off for Stockholm and St. Petersburg, the elements of ambiguity were plain to see. Ambassador Feltman’s trip to Tehran suggested that he wanted a “no” vote to preserve the option of a diplomatic deal over Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions. So did the fact that, at that point, no attempt seemed to be in the works to get the Israelis and the Saudis to publicly support U.S. military action, since both countries have lobbies known to be able to deliver votes in Congress. The Israelis were keeping preternaturally quiet, and so was AIPAC—for damned good reason. But Obama’s promise to Senator McCain at a White House meeting that a strike would indeed be muscular enough to degrade Syrian capabilities was, on balance, more likely to lead to a “yes” vote in the Senate. Everything about Secretary of State Kerry’s body language suggested a deep desire for a “yes”, and nearly everything about the President’s body language suggested the reverse, an impression magnified by his astonishing remarks in Stockholm, of which more in a moment. One could excuse an honest outside observer for not knowing what to make of this pushme-pullyou act.
Second and more basically, the turn to Congress sharply curtailed the President’s own freedom of maneuver. It was hard, though not quite impossible to believe (nothing is impossible to believe with this guy in the Oval Office) that he would order a strike if both the House and Senate said “no”, and just about as hard to believe that he would demur if both said “yes.” What President wants to clip his own wings with Congress? Even now we are left to wonder if the White House desired a “yes” vote but disastrously misread the national mood, or counted on that mood to guarantee an olly-olly-oxen-free “no.” If the former is true, then mark one major screw-up for the White House staff. And if the former is true then the President had to cede leverage to John McCain about the character of the use of force in order to make a “yes” vote in the Senate more likely. What commander-in-chief cedes such leverage to the man he defeated at the polls to become President? If the latter is true, then the President was treating his Secretary of State (and, less telegenically so, his Secretary of Defense) as a kind of in-house piñata. Let me reserve judgment on which was which for the moment.
Then came the September 4 remarks in Stockholm, in which the President seemed to disavow his own “red line.” It wasn’t his red line, he said, but it was a global red line, a red line of the so-called international community which (all naked emperors beware) doesn’t exist. So there were Kerry and Hagel, Susan Rice and Samantha Power and the rest out on the hustings trying their best to redeem the President’s foolish gauntlet throwing of some weeks prior, while POTUS himself was trying to walk away from his own words. This was no way to gain additional international support for military action. This was more than ambiguity; it suggested outright ambivalence. (I know it’s difficult definitionally for ambivalence to be “outright”, but Obama has done the difficult.)
Everyone could count the number of governments represented in St. Petersburg for the G-20 meeting and see that only a minority supported a U.S. military strike against the Assad regime. Certainly the host nation did not support one. It was clear that neither the Security Council nor NATO nor the Arab League was about to explicitly endorse the use of force. The message that came home was, well, if none of them will endorse a strike, why should we here in Congress do so? The President’s trip made a “no” vote in both the Senate and the House even more likely than it already was.
And then, seemingly out of nowhere, came the “Russian Option”—meaning the idea that the United States might not strike Syria if the Syrian regime agreed to turn over its chemical warfare stocks to some sort of international inspection and monitoring regime whose ultimate purpose would be to rid Syria of such weapons. But it only seemingly came out of nowhere; it seems to me, anyway, that it came out of the very Russian minds of Sergei Lavrov and Vladimir Putin.
All this started, the standard tale goes, when on the morning of September 9 Secretary Kerry made off-the-cuff remarks about trading a Russian-assisted CW solution in Syria for a U.S. stand-down from a military strike. A day or so later, after the Russians and Syrians seemed to embrace the idea, the White House tried to spin the story, suggesting that this was the plan all along. After all, where ambivalence reigns, malarkey thrives.
It’s easy to be skeptical of that claim, but it may not be entirely invented. Note that on September 6, in a speech to Center for American Progress, Samantha Power declared:
We worked with the UN to create a group of inspectors and then worked for more than six months to get them access to the country on the logic that perhaps the presence of an investigative team in the country might deter future attacks. Or, if not, at a minimum, we thought perhaps a shared evidentiary base could convince Russia or Iran — itself a victim of Saddam Hussein’s monstrous chemical weapons attacks in 1987-1988 — to cast loose a regime that was gassing its people.
The idea that the Russians or the Iranians would be summoned to actionable moral unction over Syrian use of chemical weapons is breathtakingly naïve. What happened here? When Mr. Rogers died, did a few of the neighborhood kids somehow end up working in the White House? I do not assume that Samantha Power’s view is the consensual view of the Administration on this point, but if it’s even in the mix, then the President’s embrace of the Russian Option, formalized in Tuesday evening’s speech, might owe something to this particular kind of magical thinking. That would be troubling.
And so the official narrative just gets curiouser and curiouser with each passing tongue flap. Recall that as soon as Kerry uttered the words, he rejoined—to himself, evidently…..—that Assad would never go for it and that it was impossible anyway to do such a thing in the middle of more or less frontless civil war. (That episode should teach how important speechwriters are in their capacity as gaffe shields, and how dangerous extemporaneous remarks from principals can be.) If that is really what the Secretary of State believes, it casts some doubt on the White House spin story—either that or, more likely, it shows how much blue sky there is between the White House and the seventh floor over in Foggy Bottom.
But neither is the off-the-cuff interpretation all it seems. If you read the news copy closely, you would have seen that Kerry and Lavrov kicked such an idea around a day or two before. No doubt Lavrov raised it, and, as he did on Monday morning, Kerry probably recited its shortcomings. So imagine Kerry’s surprise when, having foolishly free-associated in public, the President tentatively embraced the idea (again without consulting him or Secretary Hagel, who had to explain to the guys in uniform what they were supposed to do with all those ships floating around in the Med), which led to a pell-mell “me, too” from the Russians and the Syrians.
Kerry and Hagel weren’t the only ones who were wrong-footed by the President’s rapid embrace of the Russian Option. Susan Rice was off giving a speech at the time that still focused on making the case for seemingly urgent military action when her boss had already agreed to delay it, apparently for weeks if not longer, to give the Russian proposal a chance to prove itself viable, or not. As one of my more sagacious regular readers has pointed out, you have to give the woman an A+ for knowing how to stick to her talking points. But it’s not her fault; it’s just very bad form for a commander to do a sudden 180 and leave his generals still marching forward to no particular point.
Kerry has already been “had” so many times by the Russians that he must have smelled a Muscovy rat from the start. It had been only a day or two, just by the way, since Putin had publicly called Kerry a liar, and pronounced the fact “sad.” Kerry’s musings of Monday morning were perfectly correct. Assad will not give up his ace in the hole, no matter what he may say. The man is a born liar in a serious jam and, like all Alawi males, a proud practitioner of the noble art of taqiyah (“righteous dissimulation”). And even if the Russians were to break several of his bones to make him agree (highly improbable), it’s not logistically feasible to do this under current circumstances. We are talking, after all, about tons of this stuff squirreled away in a shifting war zone.
So Kerry has to know that this is yet another Russian delaying tactic, another example of Russian bait-and-switch diplomacy. Anyone paying attention cannot have been very surprised; Moscow tried to bail Saddam Hussein out before both Gulf Wars with such gambits. In this case it’s true that the prospect of an American attack, let alone a major attack, was considerably less vivid—especially if the Kremlin understood how slim the White House’s chances of getting Congress to say “yes” were. But it could well be that they did not understand that, and that both the Russian and Syrian leaderships fear the possibility of even a limited U.S. attack, knowing as they do how fragile their battlefield advantages are. I doubt Russian behavior has been motivated by any stigma of being associated with a guilty, CW-using Syrian regime.
Now, the arrival of Russian Option immediately cleared up Obama’s ambivalence, if there was any, about what he wanted from Congress. Whatever he thought before, he now needs either a “yes” vote in the Senate if not also in the House, or failing the likelihood of that, he needs to keep putting off the vote until it grows a beard. Why? You don’t have to be a strategic genius to know that it was the threat of using force that produced the Russian Option in the first place, and so if that threat were to melt away, any chance of getting that option, or any political option, to work would melt away with it. And if that happens, Obama is right back where he started, only much worse for the reputational wear from all the wooly window-ledge adlibbing of the past few weeks.
It’s because he now needs to get to “yes” that’s we’ve heard in recent days of public Saudi support for a strike, and more tellingly, of the Israeli (and AIPAC) support for one. These expressions of support can, as noted, deliver votes. One can only imagine the private White House discussion with Prime Minister Netanyahu on this. All else equal, it is not a good idea for the longer run for Israel or for AIPAC to espouse a policy that upwards of 60 percent of the U.S. public opposes. There is, at any rate, a cost to doing that, though there is also a potential cost for denying a pointed White House request on a thing like this—and possibly a reward of some kind for complying. Maybe we’ll learn more about that calculus in due course. The problem is that having now stuck out their necks, the Saudis, Kuwaitis and other Gulf State, and in a slightly different way Israel as well, are looking none too kindly on the President’s revived reluctance to use force. The Gulf Arabs seem to think that the whole Russian Option gambit will leave Assad and his Iranian patron in a stronger position when all is said and done. So do the FSA rebels–and they’re probably right.
It’s also because he needs to get Congress to say “yes” that Secretary Kerry claimed recently that a U.S. strike on Syria would be “unbelievably small”—presumably to lock in support from those justifiably worried about the slippery slope problem. But this just didn’t sound right in oh so many ways, “unbelievable” being functionally synonymous with “incredible”, not a great concept to use during a period of already swooning American credibility. This led the President to once again contradict his Secretary of State: Not only is the Russian Option not impossible, pace John Kerry, but the U.S. military “doesn’t do pinpricks”, said the commander-in-chief. This relationship between the President and his second Secretary of State is starting to look unpretty.
The upshot of all this Russian Option business is that, while the President may or may not understand that it’s a non-starter for any practical purpose, it nevertheless comes bearing unexpected gifts. It buys time and it saves him from an embarrassment at the hands of Congress; but recall that the purpose of going to Congress in the first place was to save him from the embarrassment of (maybe) having to enforce his own red line in the absence of British or other international support. The President’s penchant to lurch from one embarrassment to the next, only to find that he needs to lurch yet again, as though he’s being carried forward by an irresistible centrifugal force from one carousel creature to the next, does not a graceful dance make.
Worse, the Russian Option has its ugly side. The President refused to meet with Putin in St. Petersburg, canceling a scheduled meeting, presumably over the Snowden business–ah, but there were so many reasons to justify the decision. But now he’s turned around and given Putin-cum-diplomatic partner enormous leverage over his own policy. And how has this grant been rewarded so far? By an announcement, made personally by Putin, that Russia would sell S-300 missiles to Iran and build a second nuclear reactor at Busheyr. On the embarrassment carousel spins….
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So now what? Well, at least the President has his breathing period with Congress and with having to decide on any use of force, the latter thanks to the diplomatic longueurs necessarily associated with the Russian Option. Better, he can, if he hasn’t done so already, set up the next phase of the game as follows: If the Russians are not serious and/or the Syrians are not willing to proceed, we retain the military option. (Dropping the military option in trade for a Russian promise to lean on the Syrians, as the Russians have proposed, is a very, very bad idea.) That way the White House can say to Congress, look, we tried diplomacy yet again, we went the extra mile, and now we’ve come to the end of that road. That’s a fairly compelling pitch, and it just might deliver the “yes” vote the President now needs. And if it looks to be less than enough for that purpose, the vote can be put off until, maybe, it becomes enough thanks to some events not yet in view—Micaweberism redux, in other words. Either way, the Russian Option can be played in such a manner as to enable the President to get off the embarrassment carousel. That’s all to the good, if he can figure out how to do it.
What the Russian Option can’t do is actually solve the CW problem. More importantly, it cannot address the real stakes of the Syrian civil war and its implications for the region. Even a full-blown success, highly unlikely as it is, won’t change the state of play before the August 21 Sarin attack, and that state of play was not good. The whole nutty progression of events over the past few weeks has had the malign side effect of raising the significance of chemical weapons wildly beyond their intrinsic importance. As many have noted, doing so makes it seem as though it’s OK for a regime to kill 100,000 of its own people with bullets and bombs, but not OK for it to kill 1,400 with chemicals. This makes no sense, morally or strategically, but it’s the kind of thing that tends to happen when contemporary liberal Democrats think about national security issues. They feel guilty, creepy even, using force on behalf of national interests, because that strikes them as selfish and hence ignoble; but they manage to work themselves into a righteous froth over abstractions detached from immediate or concrete American interests because the sheer selflessness of it all makes them feel extremely warm and fuzzy.
As others have suggested, the Administration is now in a position to propose a political end to the war, beginning with a ceasefire, as a precondition for neutering and eliminating Syria’s CW arsenal. This is, in any event, the only way to get that job done—so the idea has logic completely on its side. If the Russians either don’t want to go down that road, or if they can’t deliver their client (entirely plausible), or if a ceasefire becomes impossible to arrange thanks to the absence of unity of command on the rebel side, nothing is lost and something may be gained. That something may in the end consist of a more united resolve to use force to change battlefield realities in Syria, which is, as I have said, and fraught and altogether dangerous ambition–but going passive is dangerous, too.
Above all, the Administration needs to use the coming autumn not just to restore American credibility, but even more fundamentally to rebuild its image as being capable of mature, professional and responsible foreign policy behavior. If it doesn’t do that, there is no hope of its developing an effective policy toward the Syrian mess and, indeed, the region as a whole. In the meantime, my only advice would be to please shut up unless it is absolutely necessary to say something in public. The staccato headlines of late, nearly every one of them sending the gaffe meter through the roof, need to stop. As some used to like to say, the whole world is watching.