At this point 24 hours ago, many of us had certain expectations about the crisis in Syria and the status of U.S. policy. Monday, we assumed, would feature a public-relations offensive from the White House, which would be met by skepticism from lawmakers and much of the public, even as the legislative process inched closer to actual votes from lawmakers.
But as the dust settled last night, it was clear that things didn’t go according to plan yesterday. For President Obama, this was almost certainly good news.
President Obama on Monday tentatively embraced a Russian diplomatic proposal to avert a United States military strike on Syria by having international monitors take control of the Syrian government’s chemical weapons. The move added new uncertainty to Mr. Obama’s push to win support among allies, the American public and members of Congress for an attack.
In a series of television interviews with six cable and broadcast networks, Mr. Obama capped a remarkable day of presidential lobbying for military action and a dizzying series of developments at home and abroad. Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said early Monday that Syria could avoid an attack by putting its chemical weapons in the hands of monitors and agreeing to ultimately eliminate its massive arsenal of poison gas. It was an idea that was quickly praised by top officials in Syria and some lawmakers in the United States.
“It’s possible,” Mr. Obama said on CNN of the Russian proposal, “if it’s real.”
Whether the solution is, in fact, “real” remains to be seen. Those who followed the conflict in Bosnia in the 1990s may recall many instances in which Slobodan Milosevic would promise to give up his heavy weapons, raising hopes for diplomatic solution, but when it came time to deliver, Serbian leaders would obstruct and delay, over and over again. It’s certainly possible that Russia and Syria are playing a similar game now.
It’s why it made sense when Obama told NBC News’ Savannah Guthrie late yesterday, in response to a question about the Russian proposal, “I think you have to take it with a grain of salt initially. This represents a potentially positive development. We are gonna run this to ground.”
But the fact that this avenue suddenly appeared at all shook up Washington in ways that were hard to predict at this time yesterday.
Indeed, the Senate vote that was on track for a floor debate is now on indefinite hold.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Monday delayed a vote on using military force against Syria.
Faced with stiffening opposition from Republicans and skepticism from many Democrats, Reid said he would not rush the vote to begin considering the controversial use-of-force resolution.
He insisted he was not delaying action because of a lack of votes.
And while that’s not an unreasonable posture to take publicly, the fact remains that Reid couldn’t be entirely sure that the votes were in place, either.
But the possibility of a diplomatic breakthrough certainly gave Senate leaders a helpful excuse – the resolution is on hold, at least officially, while members watch to see how the process continues to unfold.
One thing to keep an eye on is how these developments alter the administration’s pitch to Congress. Tommy Vietor mentioned this last night with Rachel on the show – as far as the White House is concerned, it’s the threat of military force that creates the diplomatic opportunities. If Congress wants the chemical-weapons solution to move forward, the argument goes, then lawmakers now have even stronger incentive to authorize the U.S. military intervention, because it will keep the pressure on.
If Congress rejects the president’s request for approval, the relevant players can walk away from the table, confident there will be no consequences for failing to negotiate. It’s an ironic twist, but expect Obama to tell skeptical lawmakers, “If you want a peaceful resolution to the crisis, give me the authority to strike.”