Can Obama Recover?

At first, the president bungled badly. But now he’s getting it right — along with America’s role in the world.

A U.N. chemical weapons expert, wearing a gas mask, holds a plastic bag containing samples from one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack in the Ain Tarma neighbourhood of Damascus August 29, 2013. A team of U.N. experts left their Damascus hotel for a third day of on-site investigations into apparent chemical weapons attacks on the outskirts of the capital. Activists and doctors in rebel-held areas said the six-car U.N. convoy was scheduled to visit the scene of strikes in the eastern Ghouta suburbs. 
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Michael Hirsh
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Michael Hirsh
Sept. 12, 2013, 11:55 a.m.

Nev­er has Win­ston Churchill’s epi­gram looked so apt as right now: “Amer­ic­ans can al­ways be coun­ted on to do the right thing,” the elo­quent Bri­ton re­portedly said, “after they’ve ex­hausted all the oth­er pos­sib­il­it­ies.” Barack Obama at first tried just about every pos­sib­il­ity in deal­ing with Syr­ia but the right one. For many months, he ig­nored the spread­ing civil war there, even as it spilled over the bor­ders in­to Ir­aq, Jordan, Le­ban­on, and Tur­key. Obama also failed to re­spond to the re­gime’s pre­vi­ous, if smal­ler, chem­ic­al at­tacks when they were doc­u­mented in June, des­pite say­ing he would act; this fail­ure un­ques­tion­ably em­boldened Bashar al-As­sad to es­cal­ate his use of chem­ic­al weapons un­til the brazen and deadly at­tack of last month. And when Obama fi­nally did re­spond, it was with a neck-wrench­ing pledge to launch an im­min­ent at­tack. The turn­about caught every­one off guard, es­pe­cially va­ca­tion­ing mem­bers of Con­gress whom Obama pledged to by­pass — un­til he ab­ruptly del­eg­ated his de­cision to them.

The pres­id­ent nev­er got his tim­ing right. If Obama wanted Con­gress to ap­prove mil­it­ary ac­tion, he should have waited un­til mem­bers re­turned from their sum­mer re­cess, rather than al­low­ing them to get am­bushed by an angry and ill-in­formed pub­lic in town meet­ings while the me­dia chewed up his evid­ence piece­meal on talk TV over the last two weeks. “That was a mis­cal­cu­la­tion,” says Rep. Dutch Rup­pers­ber­ger, the rank­ing Demo­crat on the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee. Mike Ro­gers, the com­mit­tee chair­man, also poin­ted out, “You can’t really go from a dead stop to full speed. We cre­ated our own prob­lem here.”

But now Obama has won a re­prieve — thanks to the Rus­si­ans, of all people, Amer­ica’s chief ant­ag­on­ists — from what looked like an all-but-cer­tain con­gres­sion­al de­feat. In the com­ing days, the pres­id­ent thus has a chance to avoid what could have been the worst hu­mi­li­ation of his pres­id­ency. In­deed, he could even achieve two ma­jor vic­tor­ies at once. If Syr­ia, un­der Rus­sia’s dis­arm­a­ment plan, goes bey­ond its already start­ling ad­mis­sion that it pos­sesses chem­ic­al weapons (com­ing only days after As­sad’s deni­als, this is already a vic­tory) and gives its stock­piles up to in­ter­na­tion­al in­spect­ors for elim­in­a­tion, it will prove a huge Amer­ic­an dip­lo­mat­ic tri­umph in a re­gion where there haven’t been any U.S. break­throughs for a very long time.

More than that, though, Obama will also have af­firmed a truth that has fallen in­to doubt in re­cent years, most of all among Amer­ic­ans them­selves: the cent­ral­ity of the United States in up­hold­ing the in­ter­na­tion­al or­der. If Obama’s Syr­ia strategy was marred by un­cer­tainty (in keep­ing with the war-weary neo-isol­a­tion­ism that now af­flicts Amer­ica), the line he now draws is quite clear. It could even set a for­eign policy pre­ced­ent for fu­ture pres­id­ents. In his 17-minute speech to the na­tion Tues­day night, Obama made plain that his policy is at least as much about Ir­an’s nuc­le­ar pro­gram — and po­ten­tial WMD in every oth­er rogue state — as it is about Syr­ia. Amer­ica doesn’t gen­er­ally in­ter­vene mil­it­ar­ily any­more to topple dic­tat­ors, or even to stop hu­man­it­ari­an dis­asters. But it will up­hold cer­tain “norms” that keep the in­ter­na­tion­al sys­tem from fall­ing in­to its nat­ur­al and his­tor­ic­al state — an­archy — once again. “A fail­ure to stand against the use of chem­ic­al weapons would weak­en pro­hib­i­tions against oth­er weapons of mass de­struc­tion, and em­bolden As­sad’s ally, Ir­an, which must de­cide wheth­er to ig­nore in­ter­na­tion­al law by build­ing a nuc­le­ar weapon or to take a more peace­ful path,” Obama said. “This is not a world we should ac­cept. This is what’s at stake.”

The Syr­i­an crisis emerged at a crit­ic­al time: The re­gime in Tehran is about to make an ex­ist­en­tial choice un­der a new mod­er­ate pres­id­ent, Has­san Rouh­ani, and a worldly and West­ern­ized for­eign min­is­ter, Javad Za­rif, who is the op­pos­ite of his hard-line pre­de­cessor. Will Ir­an sur­render its nuc­le­ar pro­gram and re­join the world, or will it re­main the pari­ah it has been for dec­ades? “An elec­tion that was ex­pec­ted to con­sol­id­ate au­thor­ity in the hands of de­fi­ant theo­crats has un­ex­pec­tedly opened a tent­at­ive door to con­cili­ation,” writes Su­z­anne Malo­ney, an Ir­an ex­pert at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion, in a re­cent re­port. As a res­ult, nev­er has the im­age of Amer­ic­an firm­ness against WMD pro­lif­er­a­tion been as im­port­ant as it is right now.

No, Amer­ica can­not and will not be the “po­lice­man for the world,” as the pres­id­ent said in his speech. But it is still, un­mis­tak­ably, “the an­chor for glob­al se­cur­ity.” What the Syr­ia crisis un­der­lines is the rock-bot­tom truth that there is no oth­er en­for­cer but the United States when it comes to main­tain­ing ba­sic stand­ards for a peace­ful and stable in­ter­na­tion­al sys­tem. The United Na­tions and in­ter­na­tion­al law — such as it is — are empty shells without the United States. And while that sys­tem has suffered ser­i­ous blows and of­ten ap­pears to be com­ing apart at the seams, bat­tling the spread of WMD is clearly in Amer­ica’s in­terest, even after a dec­ade of war. To a de­gree Amer­ic­ans still seem un­will­ing to ac­know­ledge (judging from the over­whelm­ing poll num­bers against any kind of mil­it­ary strike on As­sad), there is a dir­ect re­la­tion­ship between U.S. na­tion­al se­cur­ity and se­cur­ing that glob­al or­der, with all of its “norms.”

Obama was re­af­firm­ing an even lar­ger point, one go­ing back to Woo­drow Wilson. The world that Amer­ic­ans have al­ways longed to keep at ocean’s length has be­come, to an ex­tent most of us don’t real­ize, our world, shaped largely by U.S. val­ues and U.S.-en­gendered in­sti­tu­tions. Since World War II, we have been the chief ar­chi­tects of a vast, mul­ti­di­men­sion­al glob­al sys­tem that con­sists of trad­ing rules, of in­ter­na­tion­al law, of norms for eco­nom­ic and polit­ic­al be­ha­vi­or. Im­per­fect though they are, the in­sti­tu­tions of this sys­tem — the U.N., the World Trade Or­gan­iz­a­tion, among oth­ers — are the most power­ful ever to ex­ist and are fully en­trenched. After cen­tur­ies in which ever-shift­ing great-power rival­ries gov­erned world af­fairs, lead­ing time and again to war, the best thing for the United States is to strengthen these in­sti­tu­tions. Stop­ping the pro­lif­er­a­tion of chem­ic­al weapons and oth­er WMD simply makes us all safer, and the only way to do it is through in­ter­na­tion­al co­oper­a­tion.

All of which leads us to the biggest ques­tion right now: Does Rus­sia genu­inely agree with this as­sess­ment? Mo­scow seems to re­cog­nize it has a com­mon in­terest with Wash­ing­ton not only in avert­ing war but also in se­cur­ing chem­ic­al-weapons stock­piles, es­pe­cially when it comes to rad­ic­al Is­lam­ists who cov­et them (along Rus­sia’s south­ern bor­der, among oth­er places). On the oth­er hand, Mo­scow likes noth­ing bet­ter than hu­mi­li­at­ing the na­tion that got the bet­ter of it in the Cold War. Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin genu­inely sees As­sad as an ally in Rus­sia’s loose “sphere of in­flu­ence.” That’s why the com­ing days will al­most cer­tainly see a fierce fight in­side the U.N. Se­cur­ity Coun­cil over the lan­guage of a Syr­ia res­ol­u­tion.

The main stick­ing points are these: Putin wants Obama to “re­nounce” the threat of force, while Obama in­sists it is the only thing that has got­ten As­sad to budge on chem­ic­al weapons. The U.S. pres­id­ent and his chief al­lies, France and a reen­er­gized Bri­tain (which is now back at the table des­pite Prime Min­is­ter Dav­id Camer­on’s hu­mi­li­at­ing de­feat in Par­lia­ment), will try to in­sist on what Rus­sia has already said it can’t ac­cept: that the res­ol­u­tion be bind­ing un­der Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter, which al­lows for the use of force. The two sides will also wrangle bit­terly over a dead­line for Syr­i­an co­oper­a­tion: Obama will in­sist on one even­tu­ally (al­though right now he’s happy for the time-out), and Putin will try to keep things open-ended. It is over those two is­sues, among oth­ers, that the tent­at­ive Syr­ia agree­ment could eas­ily blow up. In which case, the pres­id­ent will have to go back to his up­hill selling job on the use of force.

In the end, much will de­pend on what Putin and his wily for­eign min­is­ter, Sergei Lav­rov, are really think­ing. Is their sur­prise pro­pos­al just a ploy to make Obama look even more fool­ish than he would have oth­er­wise looked, when the pres­id­ent faced a choice between de­fy­ing Con­gress to bomb Dam­as­cus, thus in­vit­ing im­peach­ment, or back­ing off his threat, thus in­vit­ing ri­dicule? As Obama him­self said of the Rus­si­ans in a To­night Show ap­pear­ance in Au­gust, “There have been times where they slip back in­to Cold War think­ing and a Cold War men­tal­ity. What I con­tinu­ally say to them and to Pres­id­ent Putin, “˜That’s the past. We’ve got to think about the fu­ture.’ “

In an ef­fort to put the best pos­sible face on Obama’s fum­bling ap­proach to Syr­ia, ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials are now play­ing up the idea that Obama and Putin first hatched the Syr­ia idea to­geth­er a year ago. But the truth is that it was only when Obama faced near-cer­tain de­feat in the House on a res­ol­u­tion au­thor­iz­ing the use of force, and Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry re­luct­antly re­floated the idea of tak­ing charge of Syr­ia’s chem­ic­al weapons on Monday, that the Rus­si­ans jumped on the pro­pos­al. All of which sug­gests that Mo­scow is less than sin­cere and is mainly try­ing to give As­sad more time.

But if Obama can find a way to avoid yet an­oth­er Rus­si­an veto in the Se­cur­ity Coun­cil, he could still achieve the lever­age he needs with As­sad. In the ul­ti­mate irony, per­haps the best pre­ced­ent for what Obama is try­ing to do here comes from the pre­de­cessor whose leg­acy he has been run­ning away from: George W. Bush. We tend to for­get this now, but be­fore he in­vaded Ir­aq, in the fall of 2002, Bush had won a big dip­lo­mat­ic vic­tory against Sad­dam Hus­sein by threat­en­ing the use of force: a 15-0 Se­cur­ity Coun­cil vote giv­ing him com­plete in­spec­tion ac­cess to Ir­aq. Had Bush stopped at that point — as Obama ap­pears in­tent on do­ing with Syr­ia — it would have strengthened the U.N., the in­ter­na­tion­al sys­tem, and Amer­ic­an prestige, rather than lead­ing to a chron­ic Amer­ic­an re­luct­ance to in­ter­vene ever again.

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