The Ugly, Disorganized Obama Victory on Syria

The president on Sunday took credit for an apparent diplomatic solution to Syria’s chemical weapons.

Syrian demonstrators carry an image of Syrian President Bashar Assad during a demonstration against U.S. military action in Syria, Sept. 9, 2013, in front of the White House. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
National Journal
Matt Vasilogambros
Sept. 15, 2013, 6:47 a.m.

If there’s one thing that Wash­ing­ton can agree on right now, it’s that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s hand­ling of the chem­ic­al-weapons at­tack in Syr­ia has been any­thing but or­derly.

After weeks of a con­cer­ted ef­fort on be­half of the pres­id­ent and his ad­min­is­tra­tion to push for a mil­it­ary re­sponse to the As­sad re­gime’s al­leged use of chem­ic­al weapons in Syr­ia, there might be a dip­lo­mat­ic solu­tion that could make the re­gion safer.

But up to this point, the pro­cess was marked by delayed re­sponses, double stand­ards, fail­ing con­gres­sion­al sup­port, mixed mes­sages, and ap­par­ent gaffes. Even Pres­id­ent Obama agrees that the pro­cess hasn’t been without is­sue. However, that doesn’t mat­ter, he said on Sunday.

“I think that folks here in Wash­ing­ton like to grade on style. So had we rolled out something that was very smooth and dis­cip­lined and lin­ear, they would’ve graded it well even if it was a dis­astrous policy. We know that be­cause that’s ex­actly how they graded the Ir­aq war,” Obama said on ABC’s This Week. “I’m less con­cerned about style points, I’m much more con­cerned about get­ting the policy right.”

And that’s what the pres­id­ent thinks he has right now: a policy vic­tory through a rocky pro­cess.

On Sat­urday, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion an­nounced that Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry and Rus­si­an For­eign Min­is­ter Sergei Lav­rov agreed on a frame­work to re­move or des­troy all Syr­i­an chem­ic­al weapons by the middle of 2014. This happened on the third day of ne­go­ti­ations in Geneva.

The plan is am­bi­tious, however, and is de­pend­ent on sev­er­al factors, not least of which is keep­ing Syr­i­an Pres­id­ent Bashar al-As­sad to his word. In the com­ing week, As­sad will have to provide a “com­pre­hens­ive list­ing” of its chem­ic­al weapons stock­pile. The deal also in­volves a United Na­tions Se­cur­ity Coun­cil res­ol­u­tion and an in­spec­tion of all chem­ic­al weapons sites. Ad­di­tion­ally, all equip­ment to arm or make chem­ic­al weapons must be des­troyed by Novem­ber.

This could prove dif­fi­cult, see­ing as though there are 1,000 tons of chem­ic­al weapons in Syr­ia, housed in 45 sites, ac­cord­ing to a U.S. of­fi­cial speak­ing to The New York Times.

And what about the U.S. mil­it­ary op­tion? The pres­id­ent said the U.S. still re­serves the right to use force if the dip­lo­mat­ic op­tion fails. Plus, he says, if it wer­en’t for the threat of force, this solu­tion might not have been pos­sible. In a mat­ter of weeks, Syr­ia has not only ac­know­ledged that it has chem­ic­al weapons, but it is will­ing to join the in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity and des­troy those weapons. To Obama, the U.S. is “in a bet­ter po­s­i­tion.”

“I think we have the pos­sib­il­ity that it doesn’t hap­pen again,” Obama con­tin­ued on ABC. “The dis­tance we’ve traveled over these last couple of weeks has been re­mark­able.”

House In­tel­li­gence Chair­man Mike Ro­gers, R-Mich., though, would dis­agree with that claim. To him, it’s “a Rus­si­an plan for Rus­si­an in­terests.”

“If the pres­id­ent be­lieves a cred­ible mil­it­ary force helps you get a dip­lo­mat­ic solu­tion, they gave that away in this deal,” Ro­gers said on CNN’s State of the Uni­on on Sunday.

Obama, on the oth­er hand, said he doesn’t view this is­sue as black and white between Rus­sia and the U.S. “This is not the Cold War,” Obama said. And though Obama doesn’t “think that Mr. Putin has the same val­ues that we do,” the pres­id­ent wants Rus­sia to be in­volved in is­sues where there is shared in­ter­ested.

And still, one of the more press­ing is­sues with this dip­lo­mat­ic deal is the stand­ing that it gives As­sad to con­tin­ue his reign in Syr­ia, at least un­til this chem­ic­al weapons is­sue is re­solved. However, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion still says it sup­ports the mod­er­ate op­pos­i­tion. In the heart of the ne­go­ti­ations between Lav­rov and Kerry, the U.S. an­nounced it would im­me­di­ately start arm­ing rebel fight­ers.

But after 100,000 people were killed and 6 mil­lion people dis­placed, this latest dip­lo­mat­ic move by the U.S. and Rus­sia could set the frame­work to a polit­ic­al set­tle­ment in the Syr­ia civil war, the pres­id­ent con­tends. 

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4440) }}

What We're Following See More »
Trump Won’t Debate Sanders After All
1 hours ago

Trump, in a statement: “Based on the fact that the Democratic nominating process is totally rigged and Crooked Hillary Clinton and Deborah Wasserman Schultz will not allow Bernie Sanders to win, and now that I am the presumptive Republican nominee, it seems inappropriate that I would debate the second place finisher. ... I will wait to debate the first place finisher in the Democratic Party, probably Crooked Hillary Clinton, or whoever it may be.”

Airbag Recalls Target 12 Million Automobiles
4 hours ago

"The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration identified on Friday the makes and models of 12 million cars and motorcycles that have been recalled because of defective air bag inflators made by Japanese supplier Takata. The action includes 4.3 million Chryslers; 4.5 million Hondas; 1.6 million Toyotas; 731,000 Mazdas; 402,000 Nissans; 383,000 Subarus; 38,000 Mitsubishis; and 2,800 Ferraris. ... Analysts have said it could take years for all of the air bags to be replaced. Some have questioned whether Takata can survive the latest blow."

Secret Service Disciplines 41 Agents Over Chaffetz Leak
4 hours ago

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson says 41 Secret Service agents have been disciplined in the fallout of an investigation over the agency's leak of personnel files. The leaker, who has resigned, released records showing that Oversight and Government Reform Chair Jason Chaffetz—who was leading an investigation of Secret Service security lapses—had applied for a job at the agency years before. The punishments include reprimands and suspension without pay. "Like many others I was appalled by the episode reflected in the Inspector General’s report, which brought real discredit to the Secret Service," said Johnson.

Romney Talks Cost of His Futile Anti-Trump Fight
6 hours ago

Mitt Romney spoke in an interview with the Wall Street Journal about his decision to challenge Donald Trump. “Friends warned me, ‘Don’t speak out, stay out of the fray,’ because criticizing Mr. Trump will only help him by giving him someone else to attack. They were right. I became his next target, and the incoming attacks have been constant and brutal.” Still, "I wanted my grandkids to see that I simply couldn’t ignore what Mr. Trump was saying and doing, which revealed a character and temperament unfit for the leader of the free world.”

Puerto Rico Relief Stalled on the Hill
7 hours ago

"A bill to help Puerto Rico handle its $70 billion debt crisis is facing an uncertain future in the Senate. No Senate Democrats have endorsed a bill backed by House Speaker Paul Ryan and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, while some are actively fighting it. ... On the Republican side, senators say they’re hopeful to pass a bill but don’t know if they can support the current legislation — which is expected to win House approval given its backing from leaders in that chamber."