Is this the beginning of the White House turn?
At this point, it’s risky and probably futile to try to understand the ad hoc decisionmaking and zig-zagging public rhetoric of the Obama administration’s handling of Syria. But even before Barack Obama shares his latest thoughts on the crisis with the American people, in television interviews today and a speech night, a new proposal and the administration’s eager response suggest another zig (or zag) might be coming.
Although State Department officials quickly moved to downplay Kerry’s comment, saying he was speaking extemporaneously and wasn’t making an actual proposal, the Russians leapt at the comments and offered to help Assad comply.
Within hours, top White House and State Department officials, while sounding cautious, were touting this new alleged Russian cooperation and, significantly, claiming credit on behalf of Barack Obama for creating the environment that led to this potential breakthrough.
A State Department spokesman said the administration was giving the Russian proposal “a hard look” and Tony Blinken, one of Obama’s top advisers on national security issues, also noted the development in his remarks from the podium at the White House press briefing. A short time later, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted that she’d “just come from a meeting with President Obama where we discussed the latest developments” on Syria. Clinton then sounded an optimistic note about the Russian proposal and even allowed herself to imagine Assad’s compliance, saying it would be “an important step.”
Even as top administration officials offered caveats about these developments, their coordinated responses suggest the administration is laying the groundwork for declaring victory.
Clinton said: “It is very important to note that this discussion that has taken hold today about potential international control over Syria’s stockpiles only could take place in the context of a credible military threat by the United States to keep pressure on the Syrian government as well as those supporting Syria, like Russia.”
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said: “So I think it’s important to keep in mind the context under which this Russian statement and this Syrian statement is happening, that this is only happening in the context of a threat of US military action.”
Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, tweeted: “US will review Russian proposal. We want Syrian CW under intl control. Important that this only proposed bc credible threat of mil action.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney said: “The only reason why we are seeing this proposal is because of the US threat of military action.”
How credible is that threat? Obama administration officials have certainly devoted a lot of time this past week to building the case for military strikes. But it’s not at all clear that Assad sees the threat as credible or is terribly concerned about the potential damage it would do to his regime – and for good reason.
Even as administration officials have made their case for military action, they’ve made clear that any attack would not threaten the regime and that the likelihood of even a small-scale attack was not great.
In London this morning, Kerry said that any U.S. action would be an “unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.” His comments come after several others from the president himself, who has said US strikes would be “limited” and “tailored” and “narrow,” and who has made clear he has no interest in anything beyond a “shot across the bow.” Beyond that, Obama administration officials have said repeatedly that US military action would not target the Assad regime or its leadership.
And how likely was a U.S. attack anyway? Not very. In an interview with NPR on September 6, Blinken said that while Obama had the authority to use force it was “neither his desire nor his intention to use that authority absent Congress backing him.” And with senators and representatives rushing to declare their opposition, it’s as clear in Damascus as it is in Washington that Congress will almost certainly refuse to back him. The White House has since tried to clarify those remarks, offering reminders of their view that the president retains the authority to act regardless of what lawmakers decide.
In the unlikely event that Bashar Assad were to give up the chemical weapons stockpiles he’s long denied having, it would indeed be “an important step,” as Secretary Clinton put it. But what then? More than 100,000 Syrians have died in the fighting caused by Assad’s decision to attack his own people – almost all of them from conventional weapons.
Would President Obama, having escaped from the box he put himself in on chemical weapons, allow the slaughter by conventional weapons to continue? Before the confirmed use of chemical weapons, the president seemed content to stand on the sidelines and call hopefully for Assad to go. What now?
Even if the Kerry/Russia plan gives the president a face-saving way to avoid military conflict in Syria, it does little to erase the damage of his dithering and unseriousness over the past month – and the past two years. And the timing of this proposal, coming as it does on the same day that Assad explicitly threatened the U.S. with “repercussions” from “different factions,” could well be seen in the region as yet another example of American weakness.