Vladimir Putin made President Barack Obama’s job somewhat easier as he addressed the nation Tuesday. The Russian president’s last-minute offer to broker a diplomatic solution to Syria’s chemical weapons threat gave his U.S. counterpart a way to ratchet down his threat to attack Syria.
Obama originally had planned to use Tuesday night’s speech to make the case for a limited strike against Syrian military targets after Syria’s massacre of more than 1,000 people with sarin gas. The speech also was an opportunity to rally a resistant Congress and an even more resistant American public.
Soon after the Syrian massacre was verified, Obama declared his intention to launch a limited bombing attack against the regime of Syrian leader Bashar al Assad. The declaration followed earlier statements by the president that the use of chemical or biological weapons by Syria would represent a “red line” that, if crossed, would bring serious repercussions.
But soon after saying he would attack Syria, Obama decided that he would take the issue to Congress for a vote, surprising not only lawmakers but also members of his own staff in the process. Obama reiterated Tuesday night that he believes “our democracy is stronger when the president acts with the support of Congress, and I believe that America acts more effectively abroad when we stand together.”
But it was an uphill climb from the start in Congress. Support, even among fellow Democrats, was meager. Both the liberal left and the tea party right took a neo-isolationist stance.
And the effort to persuade the American people was even more daunting. One recent poll indicated that only 33 percent of American approved Obama’s request for military action and less than 25 percent thought a military strike would be in the national interest.
But in stepped Putin. After a seemingly casual remark by Secretary of State John Kerry at a Monday press conference that the U.S. might accept a promise from Assad to acknowledge and destroy his chemical weapons cache, Putin offered a diplomatic bail-out plan.
In Tuesday’s speech, Obama asserted – with some justification – that the threat of an attack is what brought Assad to the bargaining table. But despite devoting much of the speech to justification of America’s holding the line on weapons of mass destruction and another pitch to Congress to keep the threat of an attack viable, the president pivoted at the end to the hope for a negotiated settlement.
He wasn’t the only one welcoming a possible path out of a military strike. The leaders of France and Britain immediately agreed to work with Russia and China to explore the proposal, with France promising to propose a UN resolution to bring the massacre’s perpetrators before the International Criminal Court for trial.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has delayed any vote on a military strike – partly because of the new developments and partly because support remains weak. The White House, however, continues to stress that the threat of military action must remain in place if diplomatic efforts are to succeed.
While the Russian plan is a lifeline for Obama, it also is a preferable alternative to a bombing attack. If Syria agrees to turn over its chemical weapons stockpile to international monitors for destruction and to sign the longstanding global convention banning the use of such weapons, that would be a better deterrent to future gas attacks than a limited U.S. military strike.
A diplomatic solution would not remove Assad from office or tilt the advantage to rebel forces. But there is no guarantee a bombing attack would have done so either.
Putin’s proposal would be tacticly difficult to carry out in a war zone. Removing or destroying Assad’s stockpile could take years. Ultimately, though, it seems likely to rid the world of most of Syria’s weapons of mass destruction and to prevent further massacres by the Assad regime.
The administration hasn’t handled this crisis as nimbly as it might have. But there is a lot to be said for luck, and with an offer of a diplomatic solution to a sticky dilemma, Obama got lucky.