Shadow Government

A Gaffe to Rescue a Gaffe About Syria?

A political crisis that began with a gaffe might end with a gaffe. The Syrian WMD crisis began with U.S. President Barack Obama surprising his staff by drawing a not-fully-thought-out "red line" on Syrian chemical weapons use. And now the White House is boasting that Secretary of State John Kerry's gaffe about Syria handing over chemical weapons potentially provides the "significant breakthrough" they were seeking all along.

(Gaffes that get spun as wisdom are a theme with the administration's Middle East policy. Recall how Obama's Iran policy was paralyzed for his first year in office because of his campaign gaffe regarding direct face-to-face negotiations with then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a gaffe that his campaign team elevated into a short-lived doctrine.)

The White House responded quickly to Kerry's unintended diplomatic overture. Not quickly enough to stop the State Department from trying to walk it back, but quickly enough to raise doubts concerning what this crisis was all about from the start.

For let us be clear: This diplomatic gambit addresses only one of the four principal drivers of the crisis. It makes the other three worse, and that fact will become clearer in the coming weeks.

First, the crisis was partly about the need to defend Obama's prestige and to help him with his political fights with a recalcitrant Congress. The decision to confront Syria came out of the need to back up Obama's red line. If Obama's words were seen as only a bluff, he would lose credibility as a world leader. The decision to throw the issue to Congress came out of a desire to call out Obama's critics in Congress and make them take responsibility for the issue rather than simply criticize the president for his halting efforts. Both of these decisions backfired, and Obama was headed to a political defeat as embarrassing as any a president has suffered in recent decades. Faced with an array of bad options, seizing the Russian gambit was the least-worst way to minimize the political damage to Obama's prestige, allowing him to delay indefinitely the congressional rebuke. Every other likely way out of the crisis was going to hurt Obama more, at least in the short run.

Second, the crisis was partly about the desire to deter Bashar al-Assad from using chemical weapons again. This gambit does little to address this concern -- far less than the enthusiastic White House reaction would suggest. I hope the president and his advisors are rereading the history of Saddam Hussein's 12-year cat-and-mouse game with inspectors after Desert Storm. By embracing the Russian proposal, the most likely result is that Obama has gotten himself ensnared in another such hunting expedition. Anyone care to bet how much overlap there is between the stockpile reports of the U.S. intelligence community, the Russian/international inspectors, and the Assad regime? But it is worse than that. The Russian/international inspectors will not be able to quickly secure all the stockpiles (even if supremely effective and efficient, it would take years to accomplish that), but they will immediately provide human shields that prevent future strikes against Syria. So if the need arises for Assad to use chemical weapons again, he will have ample supply at his disposal and a powerful deterrent against reprisals to boot. A shot across the bow warning of other shots to come this is not, which is partly why the Syrian regime has welcomed the Russian initiative.

Third, the crisis was partly about the desire to help the moderate rebels in their struggle with Assad. The Obama administration was painfully contradictory about this -- the proposed strikes would affect the balance, the proposed strikes would not affect the balance -- but lost in all of that muddle was the fact that Obama's response to Assad's previous uses of chemical weapons was Obama's public commitment earlier in the summer to arm the rebels, i.e. to help them in their struggle with Assad. (Yes, I know that the administration apparently did not actually follow through with this commitment, but the commitment was made nonetheless.) The Russian gambit may well be the way out of the crisis that does the maximum amount of damage to the moderate rebels. It exposes their patron as a paper tiger, it brings in Russian boots on the ground to bolster their enemy, and it leaves al Qaeda the only viable game in town. This, too, helps explain why the Syrian regime has welcomed the Russian initiative and why "our" side in the civil war has not.

Fourth, the crisis was partly about the desire to bolster our coercive diplomacy with Iran. The Iranian regime would see that U.S. threats to use force mean something, and thus the threat to use force to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability would be stronger. The Obama administration has made it clear that it believes the only way a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue could be reached is if Iran fears a worse outcome if it crosses the nuclear threshold. Substituting the old 1990s cat-and-mouse game for military strikes nicely confirms Iran's preferred approach: divide the international coalition with indefinite and indecisive diplomatic negotiations while slowly developing a breakout capacity. Is there anyone who thinks that the way the Syrian crisis has unfolded thus far has actually reinforced Obama's threats to Iran?

The obvious counterargument to this analysis is that the last three desiderata were already lost when Obama was unable to build the political support he wanted to back up his Syrian red line. So perhaps the Russian gambit just kicked those three dead horses. In view of that, minimizing the political damage to Obama was the best the administration could do at this point. That appears to be what has carried the day inside the White House.

Or perhaps I have missed it altogether, and Obama will lay out an altogether different explanation tonight that will fit all the past three weeks into a coherent strategy for confronting the challenges in the Middle East. But from the present vantage point, it sure looks like Obama has given up on all but one of the objectives at stake. And I sure do not want to accept the inference that this was what it was about all along.

Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Second-Time Farce on Syria

Having allowed an unscripted remark about red lines to take the United States to the brink of war, and after a "full-court press" that actually reduced the likelihood of congressional support for his proposal of an "unbelievably small" attack on Syria, another unconsidered remark by Secretary of State John Kerry has now derailed that policy. Russian and Syrian enthusiasm for Kerry's idea has taken the administration by surprise, but the administration is trapped into supporting it. This is not even Hollywood slapstick; it is Italian comic opera.

According to the State Department, Kerry had simply been "making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied using." Yet it turns out to be both possible and likely that the Syrian and Russian governments are smart enough to capitalize on the administration's mistakes to further our national humiliation.

It is also the president's humiliation. Midstream in the full-court press, he cannot even make up his mind about what action he intends to undertake. Yesterday he dismissed the "limited, tailored" attacks he had been advocating, saying, "The U.S. does not do pinpricks." He followed up with a sweeping boast that "our military is the greatest the world has ever known. And when we take even limited strikes, it has an impact on a country like Syria." That simplistic approach, convincing oneself the enemy will think so because we do, that our actions are all that matter in the equation, is what had so many conservatives opposing the use-of-force authorization: The president was leading us toward a disaster.

Senate Democrats, lacking the votes to approve the authorization for force, heaved a sigh of relief from not having to deal a president of their party such a blow. Nearly 80 percent of Americans were unpersuaded by the president's case. Russia's gambit will be explored and found credible, because it's the president's only escape. The White House will surely crow the president had by dint of brilliant diplomacy found a way to punish Bashar al-Assad without using military force, uphold the international prohibition on chemical weapons use, and strengthen the role of the United Nations. Such magical thinking is unlikely to gain traction anywhere but the South Lawn.

The administration's case to Congress had been that we must act in Syria, else Iran and North Korea would seize on our weakness. Yet the administration's every move in this crisis has trumpeted indecision, lacking the courage of its convictions, and the inability to craft a strategy achieving its objectives. The lessons America's enemies will take from the administration's Syria choices are that the United States can easily be deterred from intervening and is unwilling to use military force, the Russians are the ally of choice, and the coming three years will be a bonanza -- time to take advantage of America's feckless president. It has an impact on a country like the United States, President Obama.

Photo: Alastair Grant - WPA Pool/Getty Images