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. 

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