U.S. President Barack Obama pulled the pin from the grenade on Saturday and announced he would keep the explosive device in his hand until the completion of the discussions in Congress and the international consultations.
In so doing, Obama delivered a great victory to Russian President Vladimir Putin and a temporary victory to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Obama’s declaration - that he has decided on military action against Syria but its timing will be determined later - cannot hide the fact that he is retreating. Although the grenade is still in his hand, he does not want to throw it, nor does he have anyone to pass it to.
The question of time has been absent from the start of the crisis. There was, and still is, no rush. This is not Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, with a possible progression toward Saudi Arabia, to which President George H.W. Bush had to respond right away.
When Secretary of State John Kerry stood before the cameras Friday, in front of the official portrait of his Bush-era predecessor, James Baker, the contrast was glaring. Bush and Baker conducted exemplary diplomacy in 1990 and 1991, garnering the support of the Soviets, the Arabs and the Israelis (after promising the latter aid in exchange for nonintervention), and the agreement of the Congress.
Obama and Kerry, in contrast, set out with no support, lost the little they had in Europe and, until Saturday, did not even bother to secure the legislative branch - the place from which they, as well as Vice President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, were launched into the executive branch of government. Obama’s high-flown words about American democracy in action and the importance of national debate was a thin disguise for his failure so far to mobilize support from the public and its elected officials. He lost momentum at the start of the crisis, and now can only hope to find a solution that will satisfy all parties.
Kerry hinted at such a solution two days ago when, after his vigorous condemnations of Assad, he gave the Syrian president an insurance policy — an admission of the importance of a diplomatic solution to the bloody conflict in Syria. A diplomatic solution means bargaining between two sides, one of which is Assad. If an American missile beheads Assad and his opponents take control of Syria, Obama will be accused of strengthening Al-Qaida and blamed for the victors’ expected slaughter of Alawites. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of members of Assad’s sect will be slaughtered, and hundreds of thousands will flee to Turkey and Jordan as refugees. The chemical-weapons massacre in Damascus of August 21 will pale beside the bloodbath to come after the Americans punish those who carried it out.
When Obama runs into Putin during the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg later this week, the U.S. president can sketch out an exit plan: in the short term, transferring responsibility for Syria’s chemical weapons to Russia and UN weapons inspectors, a move that would also boost Moscow’s international status; and forming a committee aimed at finding and prosecuting the figures in the Syrian chain of command who were behind the August 21 incident. And in the medium term, conducting talks between the warring parties in Syria toward forming a new, representative government.
The published intelligence report on the chemical weapons attack does not fully support Obama’s and Kerry’s denunciation of Assad. The classified report may contains more information, such as laboratory results, and not only reports from agents, transcripts of communications intercepts and satellite and aerial photographs. Going by the non-classified report, the evidence against the Assad regime is mostly circumstantial.
In keeping with accepted practice in U.S. intelligence since the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, each section was labeled with a confidence coefficient. In most cases the report’s authors cited their “high confidence” in the credibility of the evidence on which the assessment was based, but they took care to note that it cannot be confirmed unequivocally. In the legal terms so familiar to Obama the law professor and his colleagues, the evidence in the report is sufficient for an indictment but may leave room for reasonable doubt that will preclude obtaining a conviction. Who can say whether Assad has really been incriminated? Will Obama serve as investigator, prosecutor, judge and executioner together?
That will definitely be one of the lines of division in the congressional debate, and even if agreement is more or less reached regarding the facts of the case, the question of why it should require an American military operation will remain. Nobody will believe a promise that the operation will be surgical. American attorneys make a very good living from surgeons’ errors, and more than a scalpel could be forgotten inside Syria’s belly.
Congress limited the broad power of the commanders-in-chief, the presidents, as a lesson learned from the actions of presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon in Vietnam. Today a president can commit troops to operations of up to 90 days; after that he must bring them home unless he can get approval, and a budget, from the lawmakers to continue the operations. Obama shrank from putting the legislative question to the test in Congress or the Supreme Court. Politically, in light of the Republicans’ control of Congress, he must strive to find a broad common denominator. Otherwise, he could win the fight over Syria only to discover that he has mortgaged his national, economic and welfare plans until the end of his term, slightly more than three years from now.
That is what happened to Johnson. The more deeply he went into Vietnam, the more he lost the achievements of his Great Society programs at home. The statements of Obama and Kerry over the weekend were a gloomy echo of Johnson’s address at Johns Hopkins University in April 1965, which was considered the firing of the starting gun for the expansion of the war in Vietnam. Johnson quoted from the 38th chapter of the Book of Job: “Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further,” drawing a line in the sand before North Vietnam (as Bush did with Saddam Hussein in 1990). As then, so now, as far as statements about credibility — the president gave his word and cannot break it — and America’s unique role in the world and the domino effect of its loss of influence in the countries of the Far, and now the Middle, East.
Ten days after the chemical-warfare crisis began in Syria, Obama avoided making an immediate decision. Despite the damage to his prestige, he did the right thing. If by now he has not succeeded in convincing his people, who could be putting their own children and material assets at risk, his chances of doing so later on will grow even less. It is better that Obama arrive in St. Petersburg willing to have the Russians mediate with the Syrians. The only question is what he will do in the meantime with his unpinned grenade.