President Obama meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G8 Summit at Lough Erne in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, June 17, 2013.(Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
It’s tempting to enjoy the moment, that is, the humiliation of President Obama and the short-circuiting of his war push by a brilliant coup conducted by Vladimir Putin, that sly old dog and ju-jitsu expert, along with Russia’s ally, Syria. President Obama might as well not bother giving his Oval Office speech tonight, because the chances that Congress will approve Obama’s Authorization to Use Military Force are zero, and the possibility that the United States will go to war against Syria without congressional support are now less than zero.
But here’s the thing: the Russian proposal, now accepted by Syria, ought to be seized on by the White House enthusiastically, because it could open the door to, first, a political settlement of the war in Syria and then an accord with Iran.
Perhaps the signal failure of the Obama administration in the past five years has been its utter inability to achieve a decent working relationship with Moscow. Despite some successes, including limited success on arms talks and a cooling-down on NATO expansion and the placement of missiles in eastern Europe, Obama has allowed US-Russia relations to drift toward a Cold War–like hostility. That’s unfortunate, because a positive US-Russia approach toward issues such as the war in Syria, the confrontation over Iran, the struggle against Al Qaeda and Islamist extremism, and a whole range of disarmament and nuclear-weapons issues could succeed in making the world a better and safer place.
We’ll see if President Obama, stung now by Russia’s Syria plan, embraces a more intelligent strategy in regard to Moscow.
Meanwhile, the incompetence and bumbling of Obama and Secretary of State Kerry on Syria is staggering. Obama’s mistakes on Syria make a long list: first, calling for the fall of Assad in 2011, without any means to make it happen; second, drawing a “red line” on chemical weapons in 2012, thus boxing himself in when reports of Syrian gas use began piling up; third, promising to arm the Syrian rebels months ago, thus escalating the war and getting the rebels excited, with no real follow-up; fourth, oddly allowing Qatar and Saudi Arabia to take the lead in Syria policy, led by Prince Bandar and Saudi intelligence, while the United States took a back seat and the war was taken over by Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda types; fifth, opting for a military strike with no obvious strategic value; and sixth, tossing the whole mess into Congress’ lap.
Today, facing defeat in Congress—perhaps the first-ever rejection of the use of the American military by a president who sought the approval of those 535 experts on foreign policy on Capitol Hill—Obama finds himself bailed out by Putin.
Putin’s action wasn’t sudden, shocking or surprising. As I blogged last week, the Russians have been signaling for quite a while that they might be willing to join a United Nations–sponsored Syria effort centered on chemical weapons, but not if the United States insisted on a military strike. The idea of getting Russia’s constructive help on Syria didn’t seem to occur to the United States, and Kerry’s odd statement yesterday seemed more designed to undermine the Russian plan, not aid it. Said Kerry:
“Sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week…without delay and allow the full and total accounting for that, but he isn’t about to do it and it can’t be done, obviously.”
Well, not so obviously, I guess.
Even more oddly, Kerry said that a US attack on Syria would be “unbelievably small,” a comment that is not only dumb, but wrong. As I wrote yesterday, the planned American strike on Syria is designed to be massive and tilt the balance of the fighting in favor of the Al Qaeda–dominated rebels. Even Obama, asked about the size of the strike, had to contradict Kerry, in an interview with NBC:
“The U.S. does not do pinpricks. Our military is the greatest the world has ever known. And when we take even limited strikes, it has an impact on a country like Syria.”
Conservatives and Republicans have justly had a field day slamming Obama and, oddly for them, praising Putin. (For some reason, Media Matters compiled all these quotes in a manner calculated to ridicule the right-wingers, even though most of what they had to say is absolutely correct.) For example, Fox’s Martha McCallum:
I mean, you know, what we’re seeing, it would appear, and you tell me if I’m wrong, is that Vladimir Putin is coming to the diplomatic rescue here or appearing to try to do that at least, to a president who told us when he ran for office that all you needed to do was sit down with everybody to work things out.
And Tucker Carlson, also on Fox:
The administration’s policy in Syria is ad hoc. The president implied this was all in the works, that at the G20 he and President Putin worked this out. That’s ludicrous. They’re making this up as they go along and that’s obvious, I think. The second thing that is clear is that this strengthens Russia and humiliates the United States. Putin is riding to President Obama’s rescue. He is entirely dependent upon the goodwill of Vladimir Putin, who does not [have] our interests at heart.
Well, Russia may not have America’s interests at heart, but their proposal might just work, and it appears that France—and here let me say that I am suspicious of France’s motives—is rushing to test Russia’s commitment to a deal by introducing a resolution at the UN Security Council in support of Russia’s proposal. But even John McCain, who’s been itching to bomb Syria for years, has admitted that the United States “can’t say no” to the Russian plan.
Katrina vanden Huevel urges diplomatic solution to the Syria crisis on ABC’s This Week.