Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers his state-of-the-nation address. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
If President Obama believes that the threat of military force against Syria—a threat that, given Congress’s “implacable” opposition to, could never have been carried out—scared Russia so much that Vladimir Putin agreed to help dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, then he is living in a fantasy world of his own creation.
In his speech last night—originally designed to rally the country for war, but in which he announced the virtual cancellation of his ill-conceived war plan—Obama said that the developing accord between the United States and Russia emerged “in part because of the credible threat of U.S. military action.” Not so.
Even though Obama and Putin discussed the idea of a deal over Syria’s arsenal in Russia last week, neither Obama nor Kerry deviated an inch from the path toward war until it became clear that Congress would not authorize an attack. At that point, it became obvious to all, including the astute Putin, that no American attack was likely to emerge. Obama had created a catastrophically bad situation for himself, all his own doing, and by this past weekend he’d been hoist with his own petard. In fact, had Congress voted down his war plan, Obama’s presidency would have essentially been destroyed, and he’d have served out his last three years as a limping, lame duck.
Although Obama theoretically could have bombed Syria without congressional authorization, practically speaking that would have been impossible—and both Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad know it. Lacking public support for war, stripped of significant international support, Obama was facing complete paralysis, despite his macho touting of “red lines.” So Putin and Assad have bailed him out. The question now is: Will Obama move forward with an actual peace plan for Syria that goes beyond the issue of chemical weapons?
Listening to his speech last night, in which he said not a word about an actual peace plan, you’d have to think the answer is no. If so, the president would be making the biggest mistake in policy toward Syria, on top of a staggering number of what look like the incompetent, rookie mistakes made by a president who, after all, knows very little about international affairs. (Like George W. Bush, Obama had barely traveled the world before becoming president.)
The best part of Obama’s speech was his listing the various objections that rational people have. Every single one of the questions that Obama raised, he failed to answer in a convincing manner: that bombing Syria could lead to a “slippery slope” toward a wider war, that American shouldn’t be the “world’s policeman,” that the planned strike wouldn’t topple Assad or halt the war, that a strike could spark retaliation against the United States and its allies, and that many of the anti-Assad rebels are extremists with ties to Al Qaeda. Antiwar activists could put Obama’s questions on a poster.
The Russians, who’ve nicely cornered Obama now, made it clear at the United Nations that the plan won’t proceed at the UN Security Council as long as the United States insists on adding a provision endorsing a military attack if Assad doesn’t comply with the chemical weapons plan. As The Wall Street Journal reports:
Russia rejected France’s initial demand for muscular wording aimed at forcing Syria to hand over the weapons on a deadline and under the threat of force. Moscow canceled a meeting it had called at the Security Council and set the stage for a possible diplomatic standoff.
Putin himself made clear that the weapons plan won’t move forward unless the United States renounces the threat of force, meaning that Russia thinks it can succeed in the complete humiliation of the United States while continuing to support Assad, whose hand will be strengthened going forward. As Putin said:
“Certainly, this is all reasonable, it will function and will work out, only if the US and those who support it on this issue pledge to renounce the use of force, because it is difficult to make any country—Syria or any other country in the world—to unilaterally disarm if there is military action against it under consideration.”
Though he didn’t address it last night, Obama must now focus on reviving the Geneva II peace conference. To do so, he’ll have to take the following steps: demand that the anti-Assad rebels attend the conference, which they’ve refused to do, and ignore and isolate the radicals who won’t go; put pressure on Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey to stop arming the insurgents; work to bring Iran, Syria’s ally, to Geneva; and work with Russia to achieve at least a cease-fire to start.
Zoe Carpenter illustrates President Obama’s failure to sell the war on Syria.