During his prime time address to the nation regarding the Syrian crisis (transcript, full video), the president made a strong case for why we should care about Bashar al-Assad's production and use of chemical weapons, sarin and mustard gas, on his own people, and described in harrowing detail why exactly the United States has a responsbility to act in the region, saying, "The images from this massacre are sickening: men, women, children lying in rows, killed by poison gas, others foaming at the mouth, gasping for breath, a father clutching his dead children, imploring them to get up and walk."
But what was truly hard-nosed about the address was how the president, in the face of a potential disarmament deal with Russia and Syria, and in the face of Vladimir Putin insisting that this deal is predicated upon the U.S. pledging not to strike, continued to speak as if the military might still attack Syria in defiance of Putin's insistence, thus potentially upending the deal.
I'll be very interested to see where we are on Wednesday and how Moscow reacts to the president's continued mobilization for an attack. The most generous concession he offered Putin on this front was to announce the postponement of the congressional authorization vote, following up Harry Reid's pledge of the same earlier in the day. The president was clear: the commander-in-chief decides when and how our armed forces are deployed -- not the president of Russia.
So the president will continue to mobilize our military assets in the Mediterranean, while U.S. intelligence operatives on the ground will continue to track whether Assad is exploiting the delay by absconding his stockpiles elsewhere. (Yes, there are technically U.S. "boots on the ground" already -- we had this talk during the Libya crisis. When the president says "boots on the ground," he specifically means soldiers.)
The Obama administration is clearly wagering on the fact that military pressure brought to bear against Syria is the catalyst -- the butt-puckering motivation for the Assad regime to, as I wrote yesterday, blink.
And that's as good a theory as any to explain why the president continues to make a case for military action. In fact, anywhere in the first 75 percent of the speech it sounded like the president was going to announce the initial phase of an attack.
He even said, "And that is why, after careful deliberation, I determined that it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike." He also said in response to members of Congress who've complained that air strikes aren't enough, "Let me make something clear: The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks," meaning that the targeted strikes would do some serious damage. It wasn't just a message to Congress, it was a message to Assad.
Now imagine you're Assad. On one front, there's the President of the United States getting ready to launch our most state-of-the-art conventional arms at your face. On another front, a close friend and ally, Putin, has offered a way out. What do you do? If Obama backs off, you can wiggle out of the agreement and continue. If he looks like he could snap at any moment, agreeing to the deal (seemingly) presented by your ally is safest course of action. In the eyes of the Assad regime, Putin brings legitimacy to the offer -- legitimacy that wouldn't have existed had the U.S., acting alone, demanded that Assad disarm and sign on to the 1997 chemical weapons accord.
Meanwhile, the president uncharacteristically took credit for instigating the eleventh-hour diplomatic effort:
However, over the last few days, we’ve seen some encouraging signs, in part because of the credible threat of U.S. military action, as well as constructive talks that I had with President Putin. The Russian government has indicated a willingness to join with the international community in pushing Assad to give up his chemical weapons.
If genuine, the president's meeting with Putin at the G20 on Friday reignited and escalated ongoing talks with Russia about jointly disarming Syria's WMD. Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, it was on Friday when the White House announced the president would be delivering a prime time address on the Syrian crisis. Interesting timing. The announcement dropped after the Putin meeting had occurred which, again, preceded both Secretary Kerry's remarks on Monday about offering Syria a chance to disarm, and before Russia's foreign minister Sergey Lavrov announced a tentative deal reached with his Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Moualem.
The major caveat in this diplomatic process is that Putin isn't exactly trustworthy and could easily wiggle out of the deal any time, bringing his pals in Damascus with him. However, any day in which a diplomatic solution is on the table is a good day. To that effect, I will remain cautiously optimistic.
And finally, a brief word to my president. Bless you for trying in your address tonight, but you're never going to convince your enemies on the far-left and far-right of anything. Their reputations and, in some cases, business models are staked firmly upon maintaining an ongoing narrative about your alleged failures and criminal activity. They've gone bye-bye. But I understand how the optics of trying to reach out helps to burnish your role as the head of the grown-ups' table. So, well played, Mr. President.
At some point soon, I'm looking forward to reading about what exactly happened behind the scenes during the last couple of weeks, especially between Friday and Tuesday night. I believe that those who've written off the administration as either bungling idiots or just lucky or both are wrong. I believe that those who say the president is a war-monger with a worse-than-Bush eye on vaporizing Damascus are wrong, too. Indeed, there's a high-stakes chess match playing out, the details of which we won't know for a while. But effective foreign relations in the real world are often a cocktail featuring, yes, a little bit of luck, a little bit of saber-rattling and whole lot of careful, thoughtful strategy. This administration has shown a penchant for not knee-jerking into anything. For this, it deserves credit, even if it seems during a random snapshot in time to appear feckless. It's a messy process and finding another historical instance when every chess move has been flawless is no easy task. Ultimately, it's the outcome that matters.