It’s obviously too soon to say with any confidence whether the diplomatic solution to the crisis in Syria will prevail, but unlike a week ago, it exists. In fact, the current plan offers enough promise – Syria filed the paperwork yesterday on formal membership in the chemical weapons treaty – that there’s been a debate of sorts over the last few days about who can rightly take credit for it.
Syria credits Russia, a claim the Putin government clearly likes. Conservatives in the U.S. hope the Obama administration isn’t able to claim this as a foreign policy victory, while the White House is eager to do exactly that. Indeed, Rachel asked Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes last night about the timing of how the plan came together, and he noted that President Obama first engaged President Putin about this last June at a G-20 summit in Mexico. An NPR report this week raised the same point. Obama himself took some credit on Monday, saying he initiated the process with Putin last week in St. Petersburg.
Opinions may vary, though I tend to think this is a relevant question to the extent that accountability and responsibility matter. Last week, we were on the brink of military intervention in the Middle East, which would carry untold consequences, and this week, Syria is joining the chemical weapons convention. History will document who gets the game balls if the plan holds together, and it stands to reason that all the relevant players will want one.
But there’s also a bigger picture here. Whether or not the president gets credit for the possible diplomatic solution, Kevin Drum argues persuasively, “If you want to give Obama credit, give him credit for something he deserves: being willing to recognize an opportunity when he sees it.”
I can guarantee you that George W. Bush wouldn’t have done the same. But Obama was flexible enough to see that he had made mistakes; that congressional approval of air strikes was unlikely; and that the Russian proposal gave him a chance to regroup and try another tack. That’s not normal presidential behavior, and it’s perfectly praiseworthy all on its own.
In the meantime, it’s rock solid certain that Assad isn’t going to launch another gas attack anytime soon, which means that, by hook or by crook, Obama has achieved his goal for now. No, it’s not the way he planned it, but the best war plans seldom survive contact with reality, and the mark of a good commander is recognizing that and figuring out to react. It may not be pretty to watch it unfold in public in real time, but it’s nonetheless the mark of a confident and effective commander-in-chief. It’s about time we had one.
I’ve seen some criticisms of Obama over the last couple of days that seem to come from an overly simplistic perspective – POTUS said he’d use force if Syria used chemical weapons; Syria used chemical weapons; and POTUS went to Congress instead of ordering strikes. Ergo, Obama = weakness and indecision.
And every time I see the argument, it seems a little dumber.
After all, the point of military strikes would be to degrade Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons to slaughter civilians in Syria’s civil war. You know what else degrades Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons? The diplomatic path the relevant nations are currently on – a path that doesn’t, at least for now, require the U.S. to fire a shot and risk unpredictable repercussions in a volatile part of the world,
For the administration’s critics, it doesn’t count. Kerry made an off-hand remark that snowballed, but this wasn’t a grand strategy. Maybe, maybe not. But what’s that old line about luck? Preparation meeting opportunity?
The point is, Obama didn’t say, “Screw it; bomb him anyway.” Rather, he adapted to changing circumstance, which is exactly what a responsible leader must do, especially when dealing with a delicate national security crisis.
Greg Sargent had some related thoughts on the vacuity of the recent punditry.
On the one hand, the basic take has been that Obama’s handling of the process has shown him to be weak and inconsistent. He changed his mind on whether to go to Congress. But Congress rebuffed him. He changed his mind again on using military force, instead opting to pursue a diplomatic solution when the possibility presented itself. But he’s failed to get what he wanted from Putin. This sends a message of weakness and vacillation abroad that diminishes the credibility of the commander in chief and the United States.
By contrast, few of those making the above arguments have been willing to say whether they agree with the objectives of his decisions. They won’t say whether they think going to Congress and pursuing a diplomatic solution were the right things for the President to do, given the circumstances. This is separate from asking whether Obama’s motives in doing these things were pure. Many have argued Obama only went to Congress for political reasons, to give it partial ownership of the decision to bomb. But still, members of Congress asked Obama to come to them. Regardless of motive, wasn’t going to Congress the right thing to do, and wasn’t that preferable to him bombing without Congress?
In the right’s rush to criticize, and eagerness to deny the U.S. credit for diplomatic progress, these questions seem to have pushed aside. It’s a shame; they deserve answers.