Ed Krayewski finds it hard to believe that diplomacy was always part of the administration’s plan:
[I]f the threat of military force were actually intended to secure a diplomatic breakthrough, then the president would not have gone to Congress for a vote on Syria. After all, Obama has consistently denied he needs Congressional authorization to act. Were the purpose of the threat of military force jump-starting diplomacy, opening that threat of force to a Congressional vote far from guaranteed to be a success would be counterproductive. Threats work best when they’re not subject to question marks.
I’m not so sure. We don’t yet know the full story. Here’s Peter Baker today with some reporting. The idea of securing Syria’s stockpiles was raised by Obama with Putin, according to Baker, as long ago as June 2012:
The president brought the idea up more notionally than concretely, and it went nowhere, aides said, because the Russians were highly resistant to any intrusion in Syria’s internal affairs. A few months later, Mr. Obama raised the stakes on the matter when he declared in August 2012 that Mr. Assad should not cross the “red line” of using such weapons.
By spring, as reports emerged of small-scale chemical attacks, Mr. Obama struggled over whether his red line had been crossed and how to respond. Mr. Kerry visited Moscow in May and, echoing Mr. Obama, again mentioned the issue of securing Syria’s weapons with Mr. Putin as part of a broader political transition the United States sought to remove Mr. Assad.
Mr. Putin agreed to keep discussing it. “He said, ‘O.K., you work with Lavrov on this,’ ” another senior official recalled, referring to Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister. Mr. Kerry talked about it with Mr. Lavrov at a dinner that did not start until midnight and continued until 2 a.m. The two considered the idea in the context of Libya, which voluntarily gave up its nuclear program a decade earlier.
So the idea that this was a total surprise seems a stretch. In fact, it seems pretty obvious to me that this Russian option was already in Kerry’s head when he was put on the spot about what alternatives there were to war – since he’d been discussing it previously with Lavrov. Now this doesn’t mean that was the objective all along. But it was one possible option – and it was flushed out as soon as Assad faced a truly credible threat of action.
Do I think Obama initially was prepared to strike Syria tout simple? I don’t know, but it seems likely. I’m sure Samantha Power was pushing him. Seeing his almost suicidal determination to uphold the chemical weapons taboo, one sees conviction if one isn’t desperately trying to avoid that impression. A reader puts it this way:
Obama had to make a stand here, regardless of the eventual outcome. And as for the resolution put before Congress, he was really never in any political danger there either. If Congress voted for it, some liberals may have thrown up their hands as usual (and well they should), but he wasn’t going to lose them. If Congress voted against it, he, and the Democratic party, would have a noose to throw around the necks of the Republicans for several election cycles. I can see the President in ads now: “I went to Congress and asked for the use of military force, and, my Republican colleagues chose to vote against me – again.” Win-win.
But my reader doesn’t assimilate the fact that Obama would have been extremely isolated if almost all the allies and his own Congress opposed an action he kept supporting. He could have blamed the Congress, but it would still have been a train-wreck. And the very valid and strongest point made by skeptics is that the abrupt decision to ask Congress was self-evidently a response to the collapse of support in Britain, and not the maintenance of some grand constitutional principle.
My best guess is that Obama was too sequestered among liberal foreign policy elites to realize just how out of touch he was with the mood of the country and his own base, even though he truly believed we should not let this stand. So he recalibrated. His humanitarian moral impulse was checked by his political realism. He had gone out too far. So yes: he made a misjudgment, and he corrected it. And in his defense, the case he has made for going to Congress is consistent with his previous broad view of war and peace. Money quote from last week in St Petersburg:
I did not put this before Congress just as a political ploy or as symbolism. I put it before Congress because I could not honestly claim that the threat posed by Assad’s use of chemical weapons on innocent civilians and women and children posed a imminent, direct threat to the United States. In that situation, obviously, I don’t worry about Congress. We do what we have to do to keep the American people safe. I could not say that it was immediately, directly going to have an impact on our allies. Again, in those situations I would act right away. This wasn’t even a situation like Libya, where you’ve got troops rolling towards Benghazi and you have a concern about time in terms of saving somebody right away.
Not even Libya. Note too that this was the same argument he used last night.
More reader pushback and my comments on the subject here.