09/15/2013 08:50 pm ET Updated Nov 15, 2013

Obama and Putin: Dealing on Syria

For a moment, put aside the focus on personalities and politics and consider whether the Russian/American deal on Syrian chemical weapons is a good thing or a bad thing.

If the goal is to end the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war; or to find ways of getting practical results in a geopolitical crisis without killing anyone; or to create barriers to American military excursions, it's a very good thing.

If the goal is to topple Assad; or to see who swings the biggest missile launcher; or to ensure that American military might is the defining symbol of our international presence, it's not a good deal at all.

Ok, back to personalities and politics, which in this case are almost the same thing. Putin's icy and calculating tenure is Stalin without the mass murders. He has a keen eye for weakness, and a strongman's willingness to extend a favor. But nothing's for nothing and the Russian national interest is served by his re-assertion of relevance in the Middle East and his public willingness to successfully protect a client. Both are long-term Russian strategic goals and both got done.

Obama's victories are equally important but a little harder to define. Domestically his insistence on Congressional approval set a real precedent for future Presidents that is constitutionally sound and will make military adventures harder to start. And he's managed to divide the Republican opposition, again. The Republicans fell into a split between the Rand Paul isolationists, who sound strangely like Assad in describing events in Syria, and the McCain interventionists, who sounded like Donald Rumsfeld. Internationally, he's forced Russia to own Assad's compliance, bailed out the weak-kneed Brits, and recreated an alliance with France.

Both men did well in other words.

So far. All these benefits evaporate if the disarmament process doesn't actually work. And however you come out on the good thing/bad thing analysis now, a failed disarmament process would be a major disaster by any standard.

All this because John Kerry stumbled at a press conference? Not likely, but possible. More likely is Obama casting around for a way out of a political dilemma partly of his own making ( "red line"? Really?) and partly because Putin wanted the reins put on a particularly loathsome client/dictator.

The American Right, so blinded by animus toward Obama, can't find a way to credit him for a kind of principled flexibility and a good outcome. The American Left apologized for its support of a disastrous military adventure in Iraq by refusing to stop mass murder in Syria. Yuck.

So everyone should say a little prayer that this thing holds up. A week ago everyone looked dumb and ineffectual. Today Putin and Obama will be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, sort of like Arafat and Begin. On to the next thing.