In the category of "Things Are Never Quite the Way They Appear" (especially in international diplomacy), I give you what many "pundits" regard as President Barack Obama's humiliating defeat in getting Syrian President Bashar Assad to: 1. Admit that his country, contrary to all his previous claims, has a stockpile of outlawed chemical weapons; 2. Agree to promptly provide an inventory of those weapons, and 3. Turn the weapons over to a United Nations delegation for the purpose of destroying them all by next year..
In reality, these actions by Assad amounted not to a "humiliating defeat" for Obama, but, quite to the contrary, a humanitarian feat. They will save countless thousands of lives without the firing of one missile in righteous anger, or the placement of a single set of American GI boots on the ground in the midst of a brutal civil war.
"Stay out of Syria" is precisely what a solid majority of Americans said they wanted, from the moment Obama broached the subject of a punishing strike against Syria for its use of chemical weapons against its own people. It is also the position most Republicans in Congress took--contrary to their usual eagerness for military intervention, but consistent with their policy of opposing anything Obama proposes. In this case, however, Republican motives didn't matter to the President. Only end results did.
As might be expected, this is strictly my opinion. I have no special insight into White House strategy, nor is anyone leaking me information on the President's intentions. Rather, I think things through with my own version of common sense--a willingness to judge events by outcomes rather than political bias.
One of the things I believe may not necessarily be as it appears to be--or as many critics would have it be--is the president's intent. I do not believe Barack Obama is so dumb as to submit a proposal to Congress that he wants passed, if he knows it will be defeated. He is a biracial man living in a racist country, who earned degrees from two Ivy League schools, Columbia and Harvard Law. At the latter he was editor of the Law Review. He then got elected president. Twice. Having made history, he also has guided the country slowly out of a devastating, largely Republican-created, recession, and got a health care plan for all Americans through a Congress that can barely agree to meet. This is one smart man (although I think his "red line" on chemical weapons was a tactical mistake).
So, I have serious doubts that the President ever intended to launch a military strike against Syria, precisely because of the opposition he knew existed among average, war-weary Americans, as well as among entrenched anti-Obama rank-and-file Republicans. He signaled that stance when, after days of threatening a strike, he agreed to ask Congress to debate and vote on the issue, without even asking members to cut short their vacation to do so. With even many Democrats opposed to U.S. involvement in Syria because of their constituents' opposition to it, that effectively made the proposal for a punitive strike to degrade Assad's chemical weapons capability DOA.
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Ironically, with the disarmament agreement now being finalized with Syria and Russia, Obama's continued threat to use military force if Syria fails to comply with the agreement has gained much more validity and support among Americans than did his original threat. Since the possibility of such an agreement first surfaced, Assad has admitted he has chemical weapons. French, British and American experts, as well as Human Rights Watch, say, based on a United Nations report, that there is no doubt it was Assad's troops, not rebel forces, that used them. And the U.S. Navy's continued presence in the Mediterranean Sea now takes on even greater import for Assad.
As to the disarmament agreement itself, Americans are strongly of two minds regarding it:
1. One group, which didn't necessarily want to attack Syria, nonetheless thinks it is embarrassing that Russian President Vladimir Putin is getting credit for the plan, and that he lectured Americans (in The New York Times no less) about thinking that America must act as the morality policeman of the world.
2. Another group feels it is high time America stopped acting as the morality policeman of the world. It believes that America's real purpose should be to focus on domestic issues instead, and enlist other countries' help in finding diplomatic, rather than military, solutions to international crises.
I don't think Obama cares that Putin is getting most of the credit for the chemical weapons agreement. I also don't think the agreement just sprang into Putin's head in a dream one night. In fact, Russian officials have acknowledged such a plan was discussed months ago with American officials. Just as Obama is no clueless patsy in this, Putin is no hero. He is no champion of human rights, and Americans shouldn't really pay serious attention to what he has to say about life in the U.S.
In fact, Russia has been the main supplier of arms for the Syrian Army, enabling the civil war to drag on and produce more than 100,000 deaths and a flood of millions fleeing their country. But it is precisely because of his link with Syria that Putin had to appear to be the primary force behind the non-military plan to end the threat of Assad's use of chemical weapons.
Of course, the plan he has brokered helps Putin gain even more political stature at home. As mentioned previously, Obama has been elected president twice. He cannot run again. His place in history is forged and his future as a statesman guaranteed. But Putin has an Olympics coming to his country next year and has stirred worldwide condemnation for Russia's anti-gay laws. I wouldn't be surprised if Russian authorities were tolerant of demonstrations supporting gay rights next winter, or if Barack Obama were among the world leaders most vocal about demanding such tolerance. And, while he won't show it in any case, I don't think Putin will regard his apparent backing down on gay rights as a "humiliating defeat" on the international stage.
Meanwhile, a major store of chemical weapons will have been destroyed; a potential threat to Middle Eastern neighbors of Syria will have been removed; and rebel forces in Syria will know they don't have to fear facing such weapons. Moreover, not one American soldier will have set foot in Syria; not one Syrian citizen will have been listed as collateral damage in a strike by American "smart" missiles; and the United States will have shown cynical countries that it really can use diplomacy, rather than military might, to resolve a crisis. And, finally, Assad will have been shown to be a murderous liar; Putin will have had some of his Lone Ranger image stripped away in international diplomacy; and President Obama, counter to his image in some corners as a reluctant warrior, will have appeared to be willing and eager to use U.S. military power, while Republicans will have emerged as the party opposed to war.
And, to reiterate a point that should not be overlooked: The overwhelming majority of Americans support the non-military resolution of the Syrian crisis.
"Humiliating defeat," my ass...!