The upshot is this: If Russia backs away from a real deal, after exciting so many players to its possibilities, Obama could emerge with his air strikes gaining greater support—at home and abroad. To this end, Obama and his aides have crafted a narrative that makes everything they’ve done in recent days—the slips and slides, as well as the shrewd moves—seem smart and bold: namely, that Putin proposed this plan (and Assad subsequently announced that Syria would join the other 189 nations that have signed an international treaty prohibiting the use of chemical weapons) only because the United States had threatened to use force.
This narrative may even be true.
John Judis argues along the same lines:
Obama attributed the Russian initiative partly to “the credible threat of U.S. military action.” That’s certainly the case. The Russians and Syrians would not have budged without the threat of American force. And even if the protracted negotiations over the next months don’t result in a clear and firm proposal. Assad will have acknowledged his use of chemical weapons and be far less likely to use them again, as will other dictators who find themselves facing popular rebellions. And if by any chance he does use them, Obama should have less trouble in building an international coalition to punish him. That’s all to the good, and is the result—even with all the bungling diplomacy—of Obama’s initial threat of force.
Ezra Klein points out that “Obama needs the country’s backing to strike Syria so he can strike a diplomatic bargain to get rid of Assad’s chemical arsenal, thus ending America’s interest in striking Syria”:
At this point, the White House has a surprisingly good plan to avoid war while achieving the limited goal of disarming Assad’s nuclear arsenal. But it relies on them making a very bad argument for a much larger war with much broader, more humanitarian, objectives.
George Packer doubts that disarmament will work:
There’s a brutal and chaotic war going on.
The United Nations would evacuate its advisers from Syria if a single one of them were killed, something that Assad or his extremist enemies could easily arrange. Armed factions will be trying to grab control of the weapons the whole time. Assad will have every incentive to withhold some part of his arsenal in case of ultimate need, and he’ll have a friend on the Security Council to help him delay and deceive.
Chait is puzzled by pundits’ opposition to a non-military path:
The sudden onset of diplomacy has produced a widespread skepticism that I find baffling. Remember, the purpose of air strikes is not to topple Assad. It can’t prevent the attack that has already happened. All it can do is prevent him – and, to a lesser extent, future dictators — from using chemical weapons. The skeptical reactions I’ve seen, from the likes of Jeff Goldberg, Julia Ioffe, and Max Fisher all seem to lose sight of this, judging diplomacy against a standard of success higher than the air strikes could possibly have achieved.
David Graham felt that Obama’s speech left several paradoxes unresolved:
If Assad can’t hurt Americans, why is it a national-security concern? If American attacks will be so limited, will they even really make much difference, either to stop the slaughter or as a future deterrent? And if it’s so important to prevent gas attacks that “brazenly violate international law,” why is Obama so willing to conduct a punitive strike that seems to most experts to violate international law? With the nation watching, Obama had a chance to resolve these contradictions, and he didn’t do it — he didn’t even try.
Douthat thinks the speech should not have taken place:
A prime time presidential address should either announce a policy course or make a specific appeal to Congress; it should not be wasted on a situation where the course is so unclear and the appeal so vague and undirected. Yes, it’s been on the schedule since last week, but there is no rule saying that a president must speak when he’s announced that he will speak if significant events intervene. And after the Russian gambit and the Congressional vote’s postponement, it would have been the better part of valor to simply postpone this speech as well.
Larison agrees that the speech was unnecessary:
It’s impossible to take seriously Obama’s claim that he doesn’t think “world’s policeman” is the proper U.S. role when he is delivering a speech defending the necessity of enforcing an international norm with military action. He recycled several of his officials’ worst fear-mongering arguments about proliferation, Iran, and terrorism, but these have not improved through repeated assertion. All in all, this was a speech that Obama didn’t need to give, and he said nothing that would persuade anyone not already supportive of his policy.
And Dreher is skeptical that the speech made a difference:
Was anybody’s mind changed by that speech? I can’t imagine it. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t convincing either. It’s about the best attempt one could imagine to sell an incoherent, bad policy.