The origins of a diplomatic solution


The prospect of Syria giving up its chemical weapons seemingly came out of the blue yesterday. Secretary of State John Kerry made a comment in response to a reporter’s question in London yesterday morning, which apparently touched off a series of diplomatic dominoes that offered new hope that U.S. military strikes can be avoided.

But did the idea really come about accidentally? Did Kerry stumble into a solution with an off-hand remark?

President Obama sat down for six interviews yesterday with major broadcast networks, but there was an exchange with PBS’s Gwen Ifill that struck me as especially interesting.

IFILL: John Kerry talked today about a limited, targeted, unbelievably small effort. And now we’re hearing news that Russia has a plan, a solution, perhaps, which would allow Syria to take all of its weapons and put it under international control. Is that something that you’ve had any conversations at all with President Putin about when you were in St. Petersburg last week?

OBAMA: I did have those conversations. And this is a continuation of conversations I’ve had with President Putin for quite some time. As I said to you the last time we spoke, this chemical weapons ban matters to us, to the United States.

It may be a long while until we know for sure whether the possible solution that seemingly emerged yesterday was serendipity or whether the idea landed on fertile soil after extensive diplomatic legwork. The president’s comments to Ifill seem to suggest the latter – Obama and Putin met privately at the G-20 summit, and the two discussed international control of Syria’s chemical weapons. When Kerry spoke, he articulated a goal Russia recognized as a key U.S. priority.

Now, it’s almost certainly a stretch to think we’re watching 11-dimensional chess play out on the global stage, as entertaining as that may seem.

Please don’t send me an email that reads, “Don’t you see? Kerry pretended to stumble into a solution, when in fact he was secretly instructed by Obama to make those comments in London, knowing that Russians would hear them and respond favorably because of an arrangement the president struck with Putin in St. Petersburg! It’s so obvious!”

As a rule, this just isn’t how international diplomacy works outside the movies.

But if this does become the basis for a diplomatic solution – for now, let’s not brush past the “if” too quickly – I imagine quite a few folks will be eager to share in the credit.

Update: A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin said today that Putin did discuss this plan with Obama at last week’s summit.