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Obama's Sudden Syria Crisis, With Putin Solution: What the Heck Was That?

09/12/2013 08:29 pm ET | Updated Nov 12, 2013

President Barack Obama's Tuesday night address from the White House was curiously anti-climactic. In fact, Obama could just as well dispensed with it altogether, as it heralded no call to action, coming as it did after his administration's hasty agreement to a Russian plan to pull the plug on threatened US missile and air strikes in favor of a lengthy and complex project to identify and secure Syrian chemical weapons.

And so the president stood before the world and alternately talked up war and peace, while endorsing a plan that may end in little more than a slightly more civilized continuance of Syria's brutal civil war.

It was a strange way to end a very strange episode -- an episode whose diplomatic denouement and political aftershocks will also seem strange -- and so it was fitting that it took place on the 20th anniversary of the premiere of The X-Files.

The whole thing has been something of a political X-file, something mysterious and strange that doesn't really add up. A president who has seemed mostly disengaged from the Syrian crisis suddenly declaring the murky use of chemical weapons for what in this world is a relatively routine bit of internal slaughter to constitute a major casus belli for America. A stop and start process, no doubt influenced by the British Parliament's stunning rebuke of its own prime minister's intention to join the U.S. in attacking Syria, spinning up into an atmosphere more reminiscent of the existentially threatening Cuban Missile Crisis than an incident in a long-running civil war 7500 miles from Los Angeles. Only to be followed by a sudden Russian peace initiative triggered by what was first positioned as an off-hand gaffe on the part of Secretary of State John Kerry that was, when it proved popular with war-wary politicians, suddenly something that had been discussed by Obama for more than a year.

It's tempting to throw up one's hands at this entire episode. Not that it's all over, mind you. Now all the details of something that won't be at all easy to pull off, i.e., the securing of the Syrian regime's chemical weapons stores must be worked out, then implemented.

But the sudden rush to war has been short-circuited. First by the stunning lack of support for a U.S. military attack -- from the American public, from Congress, and from the international community -- then by the clever Russian move orchestrated by spymaster-turned-President Vladimir Putin. Attacking now, with opposition so clear-cut and widespread, with the Assad regime given weeks to rearrange its forces and materiel and to prepare both a defense and a set of counter-strikes, would seem military malpractice.

So, how did we get here? To the point at which Obama's entire second term as president was said to be on the line if he did not deliver a successful series of strikes against Syria, a country that, in my view at least, wouldn't be anywhere near the top 10 list of American problems in the world. So long as we're not caught up in it, that is.

* Many say, mostly in a whisper, that it's because of Israel.

It's true that, when most organizations were silent or opposed, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) was aggressively pushing for American attacks on the Assad regime. But is that what the Israelis themselves really wanted?

Yes, Syria is an enemy of Israel, a great ally of Iran and of Hezbollah. Syrians say the main reason they have chemical weapons, not that the government admitted having them before, was to be able to do serious damage to Israel, which has its own overawing nuclear and chemical arsenals, not to mention vastly superior conventional armed forces.

But the "blue and white" does very well on its own. And Syria is caught up in an ongoing civil war; even with Assad having the clear upper hand, that could drag on still for years. Bloody, expensive impasse is, cold as it may seem, good for Israel. If America struck a truly massive blow to Assad's regime, it could cause those dangerous WMDs to be let loose on the market in the ensuing chaos. It could even bring a far more radical regime to power, one that won't listen to rational actors in Moscow or elsewhere because it's not in the least secular. I'm referring of course to the substantial presence of hardcore jihadists among the Syrian rebels' most effective units.

But I confess I don't know how AIPAC and the State of Israel actually work things through. I do know that some savvy Israelis see AIPAC at times as akin to over-zealous alumni boosters of a college football powerhouse. Is that how the current government sees things? I don't know.

I do know that most American politicians generally assume that AIPAC is delivering a message they need to pay very serious attention to. Was the Obama White House, which does not have good relations with the most right-wing Israeli government in history, influenced by this?

* A great many, though hardly all, of neoconservatives pushed the war card.
But how much attention is Obama paying to them? He pushed through Chuck Hagel's hard-fought selection as defense secretary in large measure to draw a bright line against what he sees as the better part of a decade of neoconservative adventurism after 9/11.

Obama's sometime great ally John McCain is all for it, of course. He wants us in the middle of the Syrian civil war. But is Obama really following the counsel of the man he defeated for the presidency?

* Was the Pentagon pushing this? I don't think so. The folks I know say no. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been notably unenthusiastic about intervening in Syria for years. Too many imponderables, too little certainty about how to define the mission, too little clarity about what constitutes success. And did I mention too many imponderables about what happens after we strike?

* What about the humanitarian interventionists?
That might seem a definite yes. All one has to do is note the prominence of humanitarian interventionists such as UN Ambassador Samantha Power, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, and of course Secretary of State John Kerry, who kept talking, with a certain lack of proportion, about the "Munich moment" with regard to the need to strike Syria before discovering the wonders of working with Russia.

But even though this faction not only has a seat at the table in the Obama White House but may at times dominate that table, I'm not sure it explains the present spectacle. For Obama learned much more about the limits of humanitarian intervention from Libya.

There veteran dictator Moammar Gaddafi practically dared the UN Security Council to move against him, vowing as it was meeting on Libya to crush his critics in Benghazi as his forces bore down upon it. Even the Russians went along with the UN resolution, though Vladimir Putin, then trading off the presidency for the premiership so as not to make his country seem a banana republic by having to change its constitution, had misgivings when his former chief of staff Dmitry Medvedev gave the formal okay for a Russian abstention rather than veto.

I wondered at the time if the Libyan crisis, which spawned a large Friends of Libya coalition of nations, would prove a turning point in favor of a global ethic of humanitarian interventionism.

Sources say Putin wondered much the same thing, by the way, and was very much opposed to the notion.

Libya, at least for a time, was a great success for humanitarian intervention, with the US smartly "leading from behind" with its needed expertise in air ops, command and control, and surveillance, intelligence, and reconnaissance. And it was a victory on the cheap, the equivalent of federal budget dust.

But even though a similar Friends of Syria group spun up, in part at the behest of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, there was a lot more wariness involved. As a practical matter, taking down the Libyan regime was simply easier than taking down the Syrian regime. Gaddafi had been the toast of the global far left back in the day as something of a Che-like icon, but that time had long since passed. And more to the point, unlike the never charismatic Assad in Syria, he didn't have powerful allies like the Russians, who have the ability simply by providing some weapons of turning a no-casualties air war -- yes, that's what America had in Libya, despite all the hand-wringing naysayers -- into a dangerous game of Russian roulette for every pilot who takes off from a US aircraft carrier.

Then of course, there was the aftermath of victory in Libya. The North African state became something of a wild west for all manner of Islamists and even jihadists. We either lost sight of that fact as, in our inimitably American fashion, we moved on to shiny new stuff, or we miscalculated in ways that still are not publicly clear. We simply still don't know what happened on that terrible day of the Benghazi disaster. Benghazi was much more a place for CIA personnel than State Department personnel, the torched "consulate" actually a CIA facility. There were apparently dozens more CIA agents engaged on the ground that terrible 9/11 anniversary night in Benghazi than previously acknowledged.

Whatever it was that really happened in Benghazi, Obama was undoubtedly all too well aware of how things can spiral out of control even in a situation in which the correlation of forces is significantly more favorable than in Syria.

I don't find any of these explanations satisfying. Which makes Obama's decision, momentary though it may have been, to cast this affair as a latter-day Cuban Missile Crisis a political X-file.

We were of course treated to the none too exquisite sound of a man, our president, in profound debate with himself. And perhaps he was caught unawares by how little support his military strikes had with a war-weary and, more to the point, a war-wary public. And with the international community which was so quick to swoon over him in 2008 and thrust the Nobel Peace Prize -- so ironically prematurely -- in 2009.

It's notable that the Obama team's various furiously spun up arguments fell so flat, mirroring in some ways how flat the arguments in favor of the massive secret surveillance apparat revealed by ex-NSA analyst Edward Snowden have proved to be. Not to put too fine a point on it, even the administration's private briefings for members of the House and Senate were a flop. Those hard and fast public statements seemed privately unsupported to too many members.

We're at a point at which much if not most of the people simply don't believe what the politicians and much of the media are telling them.

It's all produced quite a spectacle, to the extent that Putin -- I'm told miming what he sees as the irritating American practice of delivering moral lectures to other countries -- produced a chutzpah-filled New York Times op-ed taking Obama to task on "American exceptionalism" in particular and American geopolitical strategy in general.

Putin showed he knows how to reach the American people. But how believable is he? Not so much yet. But if he continues on this roll, he has to be chortling at least a bit at the prospect of collecting his own Nobel Peace gong. Which would certainly be a heartwarming thought to the people of Chechnya he ground beneath the treads of his tanks as he rose to supreme power in a then reeling post-Soviet Russia.

The truth, I think, is that Putin is as much messing with Obama with this New York Times piece as he is trying to sell himself to the American public. He's clearly having some fun with it, with pointed references to a famous slogan ("Keep hope alive!") from Jesse Jackson, an essential precursor figure to Obama as the first major black presidential candidate, and, with his close, echoing Thomas Jefferson's deathless declaration of that most disputed of self-evident Enlightenment truths, that we are all "created equal." Which Putin cheekily uses to trash the idea of "American exceptionalism" as a sort of unearned arrogance used to justify a global program "relying solely on brute force," which has nonetheless proved ineffective.

Meanwhile, our would-be born-again avatar of peace has put an awful lot of Russian naval firepower into the eastern Mediterranean (they may have some designs on disrupting our cruise missile salvos), and can very quickly provide some of the world's most advanced anti-aircraft and anti-ship systems to the Rodina's longtime ally. Assuming he has not done that already.

So where are we?

Well, with the Obama Administration utterly transfixed by its stop-and-start roller coaster of a Syrian adventure, a flotilla of Chinese naval vessels -- seven coast guard cutters -- entered the waters of the Senkaku Islands, Japanese territory in the East China Sea. Then, matched ship for ship by the Japanese, they left. This followed several days of Chinese drone buzzing and a flyby by a pair of Chinese bombers. Always look for a move elsewhere when a government's limited intellectual bandwidth is stretched thin.

It won't be easy to properly pull off the Asia-Pacific Pivot, which the Obama Administration has a good start on -- see my Pivot Archive here -- if something as distractingly all-hands-on-deck as the Syria episode happens again.

Nevertheless, all things being equal, preventing the use of chemical weapons is a good thing, even though they've been employed with a distressing frequency, including by our de facto ally of the time, Saddam Hussein's Iraq, against Iran in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. (There are even files, revealed by Foreign Policy magazine, indicating that the US helped Saddam use nerve gas against Iranian forces by providing needed intelligence for the operation.)

There are all sorts of problems with the Russian plan -- it can take a very long time to secure those weapons (the US, for example, is still laboriously disposing of its own chemical weapons), in the process practically guaranteeing that Assad remains in power to provide stability -- but it provides Obama with a way out of his disastrous insistence of a sort on his very unpopular plan of attacking Syria.

And it probably means that chemical weapons won't be used again in the Syrian civil war. Unless lower level commanders do it, which may well be what happened this time. Until now, Syria has been one of only seven nations on the planet not to sign the chemical weapons the convention against use of chemical weapons. The other six? Israel, North Korea, Myanmar, Egypt, South Sudan, and Angola.

There is also a renewed effort to foster a ceasefire and long-term peace talks in the Syrian civil war. The Assad regime can't very well be expected to pull together its far-flung chemical arsenal in the midst of efforts to bring it down, now can it?

Which of course, so far at least, makes Vladimir Putin the big winner in all this. Shocking, positively shocking.

It was just last month when Obama, furious about Russia granting asylum to ex-NSA analyst Edward Snowden, canceled his mini-summit in Moscow with Putin. A big blow to Putin, said many Beltway pundit types, still imagining that life at court matters in Moscow. Now, with the tables utterly turned, Obama is dependent on Putin for some very big things.

This, hopefully, is the end of one of the strangest crises I've witnessed, one from which some good may come after all. But there are undoubtedly some twists ahead. And a big underlying question about how it all spun up so dramatically in the first place.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.