For the last couple of weeks, President Obama has been running a two-tiered strategy: on one hand, scaring the holy bejeezus out of Assad and Putin, while simultaneously offering enough time for the Assad regime to save face as it figures out how to wiggle out of this mess.
It was only on Monday when it occurred to me that the most appropriate historical precedent wasn’t Iraq (of course) or Libya, but the quarantine line around Cuba in October, 1962. I’ll come back to this presently.
Of course the truth about how the Obama administration’s national security team has handled the Syrian chemical weapons crisis was almost entirely obscured in the press when it was reported that Russian president Vladimir Putin, via his foreign minister Sergey Larov, had, at least on paper, convinced Bashar al-Assad to permit the dismantling and seizing of his military’s chemical weapons arsenal. In keeping with nearly every accomplishment of this president, whether center-right or center-left, liberal or conservative, the news was treated as somehow a loss for the administration — that Pooty-Poot had reared his head into the airspace over Syria and fulfilled the conservative fantasy of Putin The Peacemaker, not to mention Putin The Obama Disser.
This scenario entirely overlooked two things: 1) the Friday G20 meeting between Putin and the president (see UPDATE below), and 2) Secretary Kerry’s remarks on Sunday, which offered Syria a way out.
Naturally any enemy, much less one with a gun to its head, isn’t going to directly accept the demands of an aggressor while under duress. The enemy, of course, wants to be able to save face. So it’s entirely likely that Putin served as a facilitator, knowing that he and his mighty pectorals would carry some heft with the Syrian government without any direct linkage to the U.S. Combined with the fact that history’s most powerful military, and a commander-in-chief acting in defiance of Congress and popular opinion, was deploying offensive military assets to the region and calibrating scopes for Assad’s Odo-from-Deep-Space-Nine head. No matter how harsh the despot, loss of bowel control is likely. Toss Putin into the mix and permitting weapons inspectors while relinquishing stockpiles seems like a wise course of action.
As I hinted earlier, the Cuban Missile Crisis is the best template for what we’ve observed so far. Of course the stakes in each circumstance are quite unique, but the diplomatic and military approach has been similar. While the U.S. appeared to be preparing for an inevitable air strike with uncertain and potentially harrowing repercussions, there remained enough wiggle room for some clever eleventh-hour diplomacy. Meanwhile, talk of invasion versus airstrikes circulates the media; trans-party coalitions are formed in favor and against an attack; the president jockeys between positions, weighing options; talk of escalation into World War III abounds; horrifying photographs are circulated by the government; even the notion of regime change is floated.
Syria and Cuba alike.
And then, a narrow window of opportunity was floated by Secretary Kerry, who, until his remarks with the U.K.’s foreign secretary William Hague on Monday, has been arguably the most hawkish administration sentinel in favor of an attack. On Monday, not unlike the Cuban Missile Crisis, the other guys blinked.
But it’s not over yet.
The likelihood is high that conventional wisdom will mistakenly overlook the administration’s contra-formulaic strategy and award the lion share of credit to Putin. It could also turn out that the introduction of weapons inspectors and the shell game of WMD hide-and-seek will turn out badly, with Assad perhaps absconding with stockpiles of sarin, booting inspectors out of country and ultimately breaching the agreement. It’s additionally possible that the civil war could manifest unforeseen problems with the entire process, especially if perchance Assad is overthrown.
But for now and for the week ahead, military action has been averted and it appears as if Assad’s ability to launch another chemical weapons attack could be neutralized without the United States firing a single shot in anger. This shouldn’t be taken for granted, knowing how close we were to a seemingly unstoppable confrontation in the Middle East.
Too many pundits and critics have been preoccupied with busily duct-taping together a flimsy, papier-mache analogy between Syria and Iraq when a serious analysis of each confrontation reveals practically zero aspects in common, both in terms of administration behavior as well as the situation on the ground. I suppose our short attention spans and 140-character news consumption precludes a deeper excursion into history, landing in 1962. Had the missiles of October been scrolling on prompters and referenced on blog posts earlier rather than Iraq comparisons, the conversation might’ve been more informed and insightful.
Unlike President Kennedy’s EXCOMM, and having witnessed a roster of strikingly unfair evaluations of White House actions in a variety of crisis situations, I seriously doubt hindsight with exculpating evidence will vindicate Team Obama. Come to think of it, I’m not sure the president really cares all that much about accolades. As long as the course of action ultimately winds up preventing an unpopular attack while eradicating the possibility of another egregious WMD attack on civilians and capping what could’ve been a deadly proliferation crisis, this will turn out to be a win for everybody.
No one knows what will happen tomorrow, but this might be the first good news out of Syria in quite some time — because cooler heads seem to have prevailed for now. And unless something awful happens in the interim, I don’t believe the president will be announcing air strikes on tonight’s telecast.
UPDATE: Via JM Ashby there’s this from Reuters:
(Reuters) – President Barack Obama discussed a potential diplomatic solution on Syria with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week when the two leaders discussed the crisis at the G20 summit, Obama told PBS NewsHour in an interview on Monday.
“I did have those conversations. And this is a continuation of conversations I’ve had with President Putin for quite some time,” Obama said in the interview, one of six he gave to major U.S. television networks.