A reader writes:
You and Charles Pierce both seem to have done a 180 on the Syria question, and neither of you seems to have explicitly admitted it. You’ve gone from slamming Obama for being imperial, idealistic, bloodthirsty, foolhardy – and God knows what else – to praising him for his subtlety, nuance, willingness to listen, and so on. Which, fine. But maybe somewhere along the way, you could just throw in a bit of an acknowledgment along the lines of: “Oops, I jumped the gun on this one; I overreacted, got hysterical, and now I see the President doing his characteristic thing – seeing the big picture when others did not.”
I don’t think I’ve done a 180. I remain opposed to any military intervention that could be seen as a way to alter the outcome of the Syrian civil war. I remain of the belief that the Congress should have the final say on any war, large or unbelievably small. Where I have shifted – and this may be a function of being off-grid when this atrocity occurred – is a greater awareness of and concern about the breach of the international norm with respect to chemical weapons. I have acknowledged this shift – here. Money quote:
I have to say I found myself shifting a little – not a lot, but a little – after reading the transcript of the president’s press conference at the end of the G20 Summit.
A better grasp and appreciation of the entire history in this area also affected me. And as this has all shaken out, I see a way to reconcile all these apparently conflicting goals in Russia’s and Syria’s public acknowledgment of the chemical weapons stash and apparent willingness to sign up to the Chemical Weapon Convention. This may turn out to be illusory, or too difficult to accomplish, or some kind of ruse to keep Assad in power for a while longer, but no president would turn such an offer down. If only such an offer had been possible in Iraq in 2003. Another reader wonders if we are “finally hearing the meep meep”:
I’m so glad you have calmed down about Obama on Syria. He is on the verge of accomplishing, without firing a shot, what Bush launched an invasion to do. Congress is going to get him out of bombing Syria, and yet Obama is going to be able to point to the Republicans and call them the ones who blinked as a dictator massacred his people. He is re-establishing the precedent that going to war requires congressional approval. He will have enhanced internationalism.
Republicans are loving this right now because they think Obama looks incompetent. They are blindly stumbling into an outcome that gives Obama everything he has ever said he wants, ever. And they’re not going to realize it until it’s too late. It’s such a perfect outcome, how could this have not been planned? Is Obama on the verge of pulling off the greatest rope-a-dope in the history of US politics?
Another isn’t buying it:
Your reaction to Obama’s address last night sounds suspiciously like you’re getting ready to declare another “meep, meep!” victory for Obama’s long-view, chess playing strategy:
Will Assad be more likely to surrender his chemical weapons if the US attacks or if Russia insists on their destruction? Please. It isn’t close.
As if Obama planned on this all along! Putin may very well have just pulled Obama’s chestnuts out of the fire, while saving Assad and further ensconcing Russia as Syria’s and Iran’s protector (assuming, of course, that Syria indeed does hand over those weapons and this transfer can be verified). So Russia might have just saved Obama from himself. His policy and performance in regard to Syria has been jaw-droppingly amateurish, beginning with his drawing of “red lines” a year ago that he had no will to enforce, and the absurdly thin arguments he has advanced for military action, contradictory goals, general incoherence and flailing of these past weeks.
Even if this all works out in the end, this has not been Obama’s finest hour. Even admirers of Obama like myself must admit this. He was more than willing to get us into another stupid fucking war until the American people rejected it and the Russians intervened.
Has it occurred to my reader that it was necessary to actually risk another war to get the diplomatic solution we now have? Obama had to make that proposal credible and serious for it to work. Yes, it was a huge risk. Yes, it places a premium on restricting WMDs that may be too ambitious. But it may have paid off. And in the end, a president needs to be judged on results, not news cycles. And those alleging incoherence have not acknowledged that diplomacy – always Obama’s first preference with respect to Syria – sometimes requires a deadly serious intent to do something you don’t really want to do. It requires some level of nerve-wracking bluff. Bluff is not incoherence, although it sure can be risky. And a president who can live with that risk is a president with some cast-iron balls. And that’s why the view that this has revealed weakness in Obama seems completely wrong to me. It has revealed steel.
And you don’t have to argue that Obama is some kind of Jedi warrior who saw all this from the start (a silly idea) to see that he was able to pivot, shift, test, improvise and flush out new options in a horrible situation as the crisis careened from one moment to another. This is what leadership can be – and you saw a very similar set of patterns in Eisenhower’s administration, and even, as Michael Dobbs noted today, in John F Kennedy’s haphazard, contradictory, and risky maneuvers in the Cuba missile crisis. Eisenhower was ridiculed, and regarded as an idiot from day to day in Washington. Can you imagine what the neocons today would say if a president cut off a war as Eisenhower did in Korea? He’d be Carterized immediately. And Eisenhower was indeed regarded as out of his depth by the hard right, if not an active Communist appeaser. But he endures as one of the greatest foreign policy presidents of the last century.
Another reader ladles on the scorn:
Assad and the Russians have no intention of agreeing in a meaningful and substantive way to giving up all these weapons and allowing a verifiable implementation of any agreement. They are going to make us a laughing stock by delay, denial, and obfuscation. On the other hand, it does give President Obama a little face-saving in the short run from the big mess he let himself get into. There are no good alternatives in this morass, but I think this might be the least worst alternative.
But again: why is the US on the hook for this? Russia has said this is what it wants; so, staggeringly, has Syria. They are the ones now on the hook. And the key objective is to stop future chemical attacks by Assad and to minimize the dangers of those weapons being dispersed or in the hands of Sunni Jihadist terrorists. Isn’t that far more likely now than, say, a week ago? Mission advanced. Another pivots back to domestic politics:
I hope that Assad can be made to back down. But in a way, the best thing that could happen at home would be for the Republicans to vote down the use of power.
It would inoculate Democrats for a generation against going to war: “The Republicans voted against punishing Syria, which was a threat to Israel, why should we support this next war?” Who would have predicted that in a long interview on NPR, Republican Tom Cole would have said that Assad’s use of chemical weapons did not result in any direct security threat to America or its allies. Democrats will be able to play back that interview for years: “Syria, Israel’s most hostile neighbor, deployed chemical weapons and the Republicans voted against any use of force.” Meep meep?
Seems to me that AIPAC and the Israeli government are still pushing for a strike, latest developments be damned. If, as it appears likely, the US Congress either votes down the authorization to strike, or doesn’t bring it to a vote, it’d be the first Congressional rebuke of AIPAC that I can remember. Does your crack staff know the last time that happened?
Another awesome development. Another reader references Kerry’s historic gaffe:
Just a funny thought: remember another time that an Obama surrogate went out in public and accidentally blurted out a major shift in policy that immediately set in motion a process no one expected would start, and is at this point now a reality? Marriage equality?
Another points to another major achievement that many, including me, thought would never come:
I’m with you on Syria. I don’t think Obama gives two shits how he gets there; he’s just concerned with the final destination. Does anyone remember all the ups and downs and sausage-making over the ACA? Nope. They just know it’s Obamacare.
The way I see it, we have a president confident enough and secure enough in his authority to let others take the credit, to let the Russians lead. Because in the end, who cares how we get there? What matters is that the weapons are gone.
But of course the Washington class will frame this as a huge loss for the president, because. Can you imagine George W. Bush or Dick Cheney taking this route? Not a chance. They would’ve bombed the shit out of Syria just to show they could.
The current solution doesn’t have the drama of dropping bombs or sending sorties over Damascus, so Obama comes off as a bit of a dull president. And in this case, that’s fantastic, because he’s getting shit done. He always does.