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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 8/31/16

When Putin Bailed Out Obama

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It took uncharacteristic grit for Obama to face down his advisers and virtually Washington's entire foreign policy establishment by calling off the planned attack on Syria at the last minute.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Aug. 30, 2013, claims to have proof that the Syrian government was responsible for a chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21, but that evidence failed to materialize or was later discredited.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Aug. 30, 2013, claims to have proof that the Syrian government was responsible for a chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21, but that evidence failed to materialize or was later discredited.
(Image by [State Department photo])
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Goldberg wrote that Obama had "come to believe that he was walking into a trap -- one laid both by allies and by adversaries, and by conventional expectations of what an American president is supposed to do."

Shortly after Kerry delivered his Aug. 30 philippic at the State Department, in which he blamed the Syrian government no fewer than 35 times for the chemical attack at Ghouta, Obama chose to spend an hour with his Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough, on the South Lawn of the White House.

Goldberg noted: "Obama did not choose McDonough randomly: He is the Obama aide most averse to U.S. military intervention, and someone who, in the words of one of his colleagues, 'thinks in terms of traps.'"

It was an important conversation. In my view, Obama's willingness to listen and then assert himself can be seen as a dress rehearsal for the kind of leadership that was required to hammer out a deal on the nuclear issue with Iran. The President ended up putting a tighter rein on Kerry and ordered him to avail himself of Moscow's help in negotiating last year's landmark deal restraining Iran's ability to acquire a nuclear weapon.

In that venue also, Putin and Russia Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov proved helpful, and both Obama and Kerry have expressed appreciation for Russia's assistance in closing that major deal.

Still, in late September 2013, after the dust had settled regarding the Syrian mousetrap -- with the Putin-brokered agreement on track to destroy Syria's chemical weapons on a U.S. ship specially configured for that purpose -- it must have become crystal clear to Obama that he had come within inches of letting himself be tricked into starting yet another unnecessary war.

The first step into that trap had come a year earlier, when he was persuaded to set down a red line against Syria's using or even moving its chemical weapons.

At the end of an impromptu press conference on Aug. 20, 2012, NBC's Chuck Todd primed the mousetrap with some cheese by asking what seemed like an expected question that Obama appeared ready to answer. Todd asked a two-part question (one part was about Mitt Romney's taxes and the other about Syria's chemical weapons). Obama eventually wound around to the Syrian part of Todd's question:

"I have, at this point, not ordered military engagement ... But the point that you made about chemical and biological weapons is critical. That's an issue that doesn't just concern Syria; it concerns our close allies in the region, including Israel. It concerns us. ... We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation."

Clinton's Hand

It is a safe bet that this answer was pushed by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her neocon advisers who had made no secret of their determination to topple Bashar al-Assad, one way or another. The Washington Post account of the press conference suggests that White House staffers had been blindsided and were trying to put the best face on it.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Nov. 21, 2012.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Nov. 21, 2012.
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Then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told Jeffrey Goldberg, "I didn't know it [the red line] was coming." Goldberg added that Vice President Joe Biden had repeatedly warned Obama against drawing a red line on chemical weapons, fearing that it would one day have to be enforced.

Ten days before Obama's impromptu press conference, Clinton met with her Turkish counterpart in Istanbul and emphasized the need to jointly plan ways to assist the rebels fighting to topple Assad -- including possibly implementing a no-fly zone. Clinton announced the establishment of a working group in Turkey to respond to the Syrian crisis, according to The Associated Press. The group would increase the Syrian involvement of the intelligence services and militaries of both the U.S. and Turkey.

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Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He was an Army infantry/intelligence officer and then a CIA analyst for 27 years, and is now on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). His (more...)
 
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