Many in the media have reported today (Wednesday) that, with the chemical weapons deal he offered to Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin saved Syrian president Bashar Assad. Nonsense. Mr. Putin saved the American president, Mr. Obama, even as he humiliated him.
Here are some key points about Tuesday night’s speech and beyond:
After the speech I was commentator on a BBC panel. Another panelist said the president “buried his lead.” He should have led off trumpeting the triumph of his diplomacy and inflexible will that was the deal with the Russians. Reading that assessment, you may have done a double take, as I all but did in the studio. You may well said to yourself, of course, if a president is in an international negotiation and things go his way, he should NOT stage a parade. Triumphalism is a major no-no in global affairs. When the Berlin Wall came down, President George H.W. Bush didn’t deliver a celebratory address – and neither would President Reagan had he still been in office.
But despite Mr. Obama’s graceless attempts to say that the Russians and Syrians had given-in to American resolve, the Russian deal was not a bow to American strength but a shrewd measuring of American weakness, particularly of Mr. Obama’s weakness. The number of blunders the president and his administration committed in this affair is hard to fathom: making the “red line” comment in the first place; not having vetted the idea and its consequences in the White House policy process (if there is one these days) beforehand, not immediately preparing in case the Syrian president called Mr. Obama’s bluff. For more than a year, the administration failed to do the diplomatic rounds to line up the support of allies just in case, or to do the congressional rounds to line up the support of Congress, or to make military plans, or to send quiet signals to Assad (perhaps through Russia or China) that the U.S. was not to be trifled with on this matter, all of which should have started last year as soon as the president uttered the words “red line.”
What I am describing is routine stuff for almost any White House in a crisis – except apparently this one.
But even bigger blunders came after the Syrian chemical attack. Mr. Obama began signaling almost immediately that he felt trapped by his “red line” remark and did not want to launch an attack. First there was the verification charade. Multiple eyewitness accounts of rockets rising out of Syrian army installations and falling into the stricken zones at the time of the attacks were not enough, at least at first. Then there was the president’s call for a congressional vote. The call was delivered just at the moment when the need for action was most urgent if an air strike was to deliver an effective message. Finally, after the call for a vote, there was the utter failure to attract congressional support, assuming Mr. Obama really wanted Congress to support the proposed attack –and, of course, the parliament of our closest ally, Great Britain, was no more responsive than Congress. In any event, it had become clear in the days to the Putin offer that even if Mr. Obama wanted a way out of a war and peace decision, he was having trouble finding a route that would preserve his stature.
Then just as Mr. Obama may have begun to realize that he had fallen into a trap of his own devising, President Putin opened the door to a graceful escape. But as the American leader rushed for the door, all over the world, our friends in desperate circumstance were surely asking themselves, how reliable is America now? How strong now? How true now?
Tuesday’s speech was designed to mask presidential weakness. It was strong in the first three two-thirds, delivered a quick report on the Russian deal and the president’s request that Congress postpone the vote at the top of the last third, and got strong again for the close. Commentators spent the next day asking, did the president persuade the American people about the use of force? As if persuasion were in any way relevant. Mr. Obama is not going to give the go ahead to delivering a sharp blow to anyone any time soon.
When I pointed this out to that other BBC panelist (a Democrat), he marveled that the president “always falls on his feet.” But in Europe and other centers of global political power, falling on your feet in this way is not a sign of strength but of weakness. The post-World-War-II international order depended on a strong United States – strong not just in military might but also in understanding and will. With his speech Tuesday night, Mr. Obama gave leaders in every part of the globe more reasons to wonder if our country has that kind of strength anywhere in it anymore.