Is Barack Obama good or just lucky? It’s a question that’s been asked more than once over the course of a decade-long career in national politics. Now, on Syria, just when it appeared to all the world that he’d dug himself into a thousand-foot hole that would be the death of him, it suddenly appears that he has fallen through the bottom to discover a mine-shaft containing a lift to the surface and a gold nugget for his troubles. Will he pretend he always knew it was there? To coin a phrase, you betcha. Shall we believe him? Well, let’s be diplomatic and just say that many of us have our doubts.
In a recent post I argued that the swirling atmosphere of policy ‘crisis’ around the prospect of American intervention in Syria is largely of the president’s own making. For all sorts of good reasons – not least the fact that much of the opposition fighting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad suffers from a severe case of the political fuglies as far as common values and interests are concerned – the first, second and third priorities of the United States in dealing with the Syrian civil war should be stay out of it. Unless and until the risen Satan appears, unites Syria under his cloven hoof and commences the invasion of neighbouring countries, the United States has no core national interest worthy of defending that arises from this heart-rending but essentially insoluble conflict.
Or rather, it wouldn’t if the president hadn’t rashly committed the United States to the defence of a ‘red line’ against the use of chemical weapons. Like it or not, the placing of those words on record does mean that the intangible yet priceless commodity that is American credibility has been staked on being seen to Do Something in response to a chemical attack, even if that something is merely to deliver a few sharp kidney-punches of pain to the Assad apparatus. Even if he regrets it, or even if he didn’t really mean it in the first place, having engaged in such big talk the president couldn’t simply, upon the emergence of evidence of large-scale chemical weapons use, issue a stern tut before returning to his breakfast. To do so would be to take out a billboard ad on the world stage publicising the fact that, if it comes to it, American red lines can be blown away without incident, an unacceptable message to send when maintaining dicey relationships with frenemies like China and Russia and sworn foes like Iran and North Korea. When it comes to threats of war and peace, the politics of the international remain those of the prison yard: to bluff and then demur in full view of everyone is to invite imminent catastrophe.
For all the lofty talk of international norms and their preservation – some of it no doubt sincerely meant – served up since the president began making his case for air-strikes against Damascus, the more earthly reason for his commitment to act is that he is the prisoner of his own past statements. And that captivity has become still more constraining as events have unfolded over the last two weeks. Daunted by the weight of domestic opposition, and shaken by the loss of the British from his incipient coalition-of-the-willing after David Cameron’s parliamentary defeat, Obama opted to seek Congressional approval for military strikes, apparently overruling the advice of almost all his foreign policy team in the process. In so doing, he temporarily placated constitutional critics, but at the price of boxing himself in still more tightly. No matter what assertions the White House may make to the effect that the president reserves the right to press ahead regardless of the vote’s outcome, a Congressional ‘no’ renders it politically impossible. At a minimum, such a course would mean government-paralysing uproar. At worst, it might mean the circus of attempted impeachment.
And so by the beginning of this week, the president was twisting in the wind. By the time he returned from an ostensibly fruitless bout of wrangling for international support at the G20 (hosted by Assad’s patron-in-chief, Russia), he was staring down the barrel of defeat for his proposals in the House of Representatives, and increasingly unsure of support from either party in spite of a Herculean administration lobbying effort. His gamble in consulting Congress before acting, while simultaneously holding to his original position that a strike was essential to American security and credibility, seemed dangerously likely to import into foreign policy the dysfunction that has dominated domestic affairs for most of his presidency: the president stakes out the course he believes the nation must take, and is promptly blocked by a disinclined legislature stuffed with ideological opponents. Indefinite gridlock ensues. Worse, as John Dickerson has argued astutely, Obama’s persuasive efforts were stymied to a significant extent by the awkwardness of his own intellectual position: that Syria presented a threat serious enough to make strikes essential, and yet action was sufficiently optional and non-urgent to allow him to throw the ball into Congress’s court.
By Tuesday morning, the abyss appeared to be nearing: Congress scornful, Obama’s authority waning by the day, Assad and his allies emboldened, and the rest of the world muttering behind its hand about the fallen stock of American judgment in strategic matters. That was when serendipity, or something looking very much like it, visited. At first it appeared to have originated entirely by accident as a result of one of Secretary of State John Kerry’s notorious mis-speakings. Subsequently it was suggested that there might have been some tentative mooting of the possibility via Russia at the G20 and that the idea had been gestating in Moscow for longer. In any case, the possibility that emerged was of mothballing plans for the use of force in exchange for Syria agreeing to foreswear the use of chemical weapons and place its existing stocks under some form of international control. By Thursday this had reached the stage of being proposed formally as a Russian plan ahead of talks between the American and Russian foreign ministers. Obliged to follow any lead Russia might give, Syria signed on in principle to the idea.
The sudden turn of events in this direction at the start of the week transformed what was to have been Obama’s do-or-die speech appealing to Congress and the American people on Tuesday into something else entirely: a rhetorical holding operation, in which he reiterated the case for maintaining a credible threat of strikes against Assad at the same time as kicking the timing of any Congressional vote into the long grass and committing to explore the new diplomatic track with Russia.
The president can no doubt still envision (especially at 3am in a cold sweat) a range of ways that things could still play out horribly from here, including humiliating defeat by Congress, or – perhaps worst of all – full entanglement for the US in the Syrian war as a major stake-holder should a cycle of escalation take hold after strikes. There are two happier possibilities, however, which if the stars were to align just right, might offer ways out of the sort that Obama desperately needs, preserving both national and presidential credibility.
The first, ‘Plan A’ if you will, was apparently Obama’s plan at the outset: a set of missile strikes so limited as to have negligible impact on the course of the Syrian conflict itself, but just significant enough to serve as a signal to Assad of what is possible if he should charge headlong down the road of untrammelled chemical weapons use. If everyone played the game right and knew their role, such strikes could leave Assad and his command and control structure intact, yet also meet the key criterion of allowing the United States to be seen to have responded in a highly visible, somewhat-pain-inflicting way to the violation of its red line.
Obama has characterised the purpose of US strikes should they occur as strictly limited to the reinforcement through punitive action of the norm against chemical weapons use, not to topple Assad. That being the case, the only requirement for declaring victory for the United States would be that there should be no subsequent use of chemical weapons against the Syrian rebels. Since there is significant doubt that crossing the red line was a deliberate strategic choice on Assad’s part anyway, and at this moment he has every interest in avoiding US involvement while he goes about regaining the upper hand in the the civil war by conventional means, it seems quite plausible that in the aftermath of a minimalist punitive strike a decision he might decide to keep his chemical weapons in the storage, allowing everyone to revert to the status quo ante and business as usual. The United States could claim, not without some basis in fact, to have acted to defend the red line; Assad could get back to his real priority of re-conquering his country without the distracting prospect of American interference; and Syria’s allies, such as Iran and Hezbollah, could restrain themselves from major retaliation secure in the knowledge that strikes marked the high water mark of US action and not the beginning of a campaign of regime change. For the quagmire-averse US president, already pledged against boots on the ground, or even an extended air campaign, a smoothly-executed ‘Plan A’ might well have threaded the needle, doing Something but not so much of it as to preclude swift return to the preferred road of non-entanglement.
Since he decided to consult Congress, of course, Obama’s calculation has been complicated by the spectre of defeat there, which would hobble, without the need for foreign participation, much of the credibility that it is his desperate priority at this stage to preserve. As a result, he became in need of a Plan B which could somehow resolve the crisis without the need for American strikes and do so in time to remove the need for a vote at home. The Russian-orchestrated plan may have provided just such a way out at the last gasp. One thing is clear from the outset: the plan suffers from serious, probably insuperable, practical problems, and realistically can resolve little of what is notionally the substantive issue between the United States and Syria. The quantities of chemical weapons held by Assad, their dispersal throughout the country, the war-torn state of much Syrian territory, and a number of other technical considerations all count against the feasibility of genuine disarmament on the sort of timescale initially demanded by the United States.
But to consider its seriousness as a plan to verifiably and totally disarm Assad would be to misconceive its real usefulness. The incentive for the Obama administration to accept it would not be because it provides for the disarmament of Assad in any genuine sense; it would be to enable the president to avoid the need for a Congressional vote he might lose and strikes he regrets threatening while providing the cover of a superficially plausible claim to have arrived at a negotiated solution. It might even allow him to claim, for the benefit of the especially credulous, that Syrian acceptance of international control of its chemical weapons was the end result of a carefully calibrated strategy on his part combining the credible threat of force with the assiduous pursuit of diplomacy. And in the worst case scenario for the administration if should things go awry, i.e. if Syria should prove so uncooperative with restrictions on its weapons as to make waves large enough to attract widespread attention, they could always return to Plan A with a some new evidence for its necessity. Making the argument that the Russian plan resolves any underlying problems would certainly require a degree of disingenuousness, but given the terrible alternatives that seems a small price to pay at this stage for access to a diplomatic escape tunnel.
Under Plan B, Obama would avoid humiliation at home and military risk abroad, at least for now; Assad would avoid suffering attack at a critical time in his military campaign of self-preservation; and Russia would gain diplomatic kudos for brokering a solution, as well as securing the preservation of, and even tightening control over, its client. In short, everybody wins.
Of course, when I say ‘everybody’, I’m not counting the Syrian civilian population, most of whom are either caught in the crossfire of the civil war from Hell, or living hand-to-mouth and hopeless as refugees, surviving at the sufferance of increasingly impatient hosts. For them, there will be a decided absence of ‘winning’ for the foreseeable future. But come now: you didn’t think all this was about them, did you?