How It Can Still Go Wrong for Obama

His turn on Syria avoids a cliff, but it sets him on a rocky road that could still rattle his presidency.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) walks past U.S. President Barack Obama (R) during a group photo at the G20 Summit in St. Petersburg September 6, 2013. 
REUTERS
Ronald Brownstein
Sept. 12, 2013, 4:05 p.m.

The sud­den swerve to­ward in­ter­na­tion­al dip­lomacy of­fers Pres­id­ent Obama the op­por­tun­ity of a bet­ter out­come in Syr­ia — at the risk of cre­at­ing an en­er­vat­ing stan­doff that weak­ens him in all the oth­er struggles bar­rel­ing his way this fall.

When Obama agreed this week to pur­sue the un­ex­pec­ted Rus­si­an ini­ti­at­ive to place Syr­ia’s chem­ic­al weapons un­der in­ter­na­tion­al con­trol for even­tu­al de­struc­tion, the most im­port­ant thing the pres­id­ent ac­com­plished was to de­fer the con­front­a­tion at home and abroad.

That of­fers him the im­me­di­ate up­side of avoid­ing a con­gres­sion­al vote he ap­peared likely to lose in the House and per­haps the Sen­ate, too. The down­side is, he’s en­sured that the Syr­i­an show­down will con­tin­ue for weeks, and likely months, cloud­ing everything else he wants to ac­com­plish.

By the time that pro­cess ends, Obama might have done much more to re­move the chem­ic­al-weapons threat from Syr­ia than he could have achieved in a mil­it­ary ac­tion short of out­right in­va­sion. Yet there’s equal risk that he will soon be so tangled in in­con­clus­ive in­ter­na­tion­al wrangling, he will wish he had uni­lat­er­ally made his point by quickly strik­ing Syr­ia in early Septem­ber. Obama steered away from the cliff for now, but he turned onto a rocky road that prom­ises more bumps ahead.

Un­less the talks with Rus­sia break down quickly (al­ways a pos­sib­il­ity), Obama must run a dip­lo­mat­ic gant­let to get a United Na­tions res­ol­u­tion passed to au­thor­ize in­ter­na­tion­al ne­go­ti­at­ors to cata­log and des­troy Syr­ia’s chem­ic­al weapons. That ef­fort will re­quire tough ne­go­ti­at­ing, and al­most cer­tainly art­ful eva­sion, to de­vise lan­guage that car­ries dead­lines and a threat of con­sequences cred­ible enough to prompt Syr­i­an com­pli­ance, but not spe­cif­ic enough to spook Rus­sia or China.

Even as­sum­ing Obama crosses this hurdle, he would enter the more daunt­ing phase of ex­ecut­ing weapons in­spec­tions dur­ing an on­go­ing civil war. The pre­ced­ent of nearly four months of U.N. in­spec­tions in Ir­aq be­fore the 2003 in­va­sion shows how com­plex and mad­den­ing this pro­cess can be — even without an act­ive con­flict boil­ing around it. That in­vest­ig­a­tion pro­voked fre­quent com­plaints from both in­ter­na­tion­al in­spect­ors and the U.S. that Sad­dam Hus­sein was im­ped­ing the in­spec­tions (self-de­struct­ively, be­cause he had no ac­tu­al weapons of mass de­struc­tion to hide). At one point, an ex­as­per­ated Colin Pow­ell, then-sec­ret­ary of State, in­voked the Pink Pan­ther movies to warn that Ir­aq could not have in­spect­ors “play de­tect­ives or In­spect­or Clouseau run­ning all around Ir­aq look­ing for this ma­ter­i­al.”

The pro­spect of a com­par­able pro­cess in Syr­ia echoes with irony: After com­ing to na­tion­al no­tice largely by op­pos­ing the Ir­aq war, Obama now finds him­self launch­ing a search for weapons of mass de­struc­tion, backed by the threat of Amer­ic­an force, in an­oth­er Middle East­ern coun­try.

There are reas­ons to think in­ter­ven­tion might turn out bet­ter this time. The saber rat­tling and dip­lo­mat­ic swirl have already gen­er­ated a sig­ni­fic­ant be­ne­fit: Syr­ia’s ac­know­ledg­ment, for the first time, that it pos­sesses chem­ic­al weapons. Rus­sia, al­though Syr­ia’s prin­cip­al pat­ron, has an in­terest in con­trolling chem­ic­al weapons that could even­tu­ally drift in­to con­trol of Is­lam­ic ex­trem­ists op­er­at­ing in Chechnya. Ir­an has also ex­pressed pre­lim­in­ary sup­port for the Rus­si­an pro­pos­al.

The dip­lo­mat­ic route, even if it even­tu­ally fails, could also provide some oxy­gen to the fad­ing em­bers of Obama’s push for mil­it­ary ac­tion. It may be easi­er for le­gis­lat­ors to en­dorse Amer­ic­an force if Obama first tries to re­solve the crisis through mul­ti­lat­er­al ac­tion. Demo­crats, in par­tic­u­lar, may be more com­fort­able sup­port­ing the pres­id­ent “if people be­lieve he’s gone through a real [in­ter­na­tion­al] pro­cess,” notes lob­by­ist Steve El­men­d­orf, a former top House Demo­crat­ic aide. Per­haps even more rel­ev­antly, against the back­drop of frus­trated dip­lomacy, it might be easi­er for Obama to hit Syr­ia without ask­ing again for Con­gress’s ap­prov­al, as Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham, R-S.C., counseled on CNN im­me­di­ately after Obama’s speech.

Yet open­ing this dip­lo­mat­ic front car­ries real risks for Obama. A dip­lo­mat­ic agree­ment could con­trol Syr­ia’s chem­ic­al weapons more ef­fect­ively than a mil­it­ary strike — which, the ad­min­is­tra­tion has made clear, would not tar­get such stock­piles dir­ectly. However, an agree­ment fo­cused nar­rowly on chem­ic­al weapons would also pree­mpt a broad­er mil­it­ary move that weak­ens Syr­i­an lead­er Bashar al-As­sad. Any chem­ic­al-weapons deal would likely im­prove As­sad’s job se­cur­ity.

At home, this path en­sures that Syr­ia re­mains in the head­lines for weeks. And if the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s cause there founders (either at the U.N. or dur­ing in­spec­tions), that will hurt Obama ex­actly as he’s fa­cing enorm­ous chal­lenges this fall: the con­tested launch of his health care ex­changes for the un­in­sured; show­downs with con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans over the budget and debt ceil­ing; and the up­hill climb to kick-start im­mig­ra­tion-re­form le­gis­la­tion now stalled in the House.

Rus­sia’s in­ter­ven­tion could pro­duce be­ne­fits in Syr­ia and bey­ond (per­haps even re­viv­ing nuc­le­ar ne­go­ti­ations with Ir­an). But there’s reas­on for skep­ti­cism as the de­tails un­fold. Vladi­mir Putin ac­ted at a mo­ment when not only the U.S. but the en­tire West­ern world had dis­played little stom­ach for con­front­ing Syr­ia, and whatever else can be said about him, the Rus­si­an pres­id­ent has nev­er shown him­self to be a man who re­wards weak­ness.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4441) }}

What We're Following See More »
HE ‘WILL NEVER BE PRESIDENT’
Warren Goes After Trump Yet Again
3 hours ago
THE LATEST

When it comes to name-calling among America's upper echelon of politicians, there may be perhaps no greater spat than the one currently going on between Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Donald Trump. While receiving an award Tuesday night, she continued a months-long feud with the presumptive GOP presidential nominee. Calling him a "small, insecure moneygrubber" who probably doesn't know three things about Dodd-Frank, she said he "will NEVER be president of the United States," according to her prepared remarks."We don't know what Trump pays in taxes because he is the first presidential nominee in 40 years to refuse to disclose his tax returns. Maybe he’s just a lousy businessman who doesn’t want you to find out that he’s worth a lot less money than he claims." It follows a long-line of Warren attacks over Twitter, Facebook and in interviews that Trump is a sexist, racist, narcissistic loser. In reply, Trump has called Warren either "goofy" or "the Indian"—referring to her controversial assertion of her Native American heritage. 

FIRST CHANGE IN FOUR DECADES
Congress Passes Chemical Regulations Overhaul
6 hours ago
THE DETAILS

The House on Tuesday voted 403-12 "to pass an overhaul to the nation’s chemical safety standards for the first time in four decades. The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act aims to answer years of complaints that the Environmental Protection Agency lacks the necessary authority to oversee and control the thousands of chemicals being produced and sold in the United States. It also significantly clamps down on states’ authorities, in an effort to stop a nationwide patchwork of chemical laws that industry says is difficult to deal with."

Source:
NO MORE INDEPENDENT VOTERS?
GOP Could Double Number of Early Primaries
6 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"Leaders of the Republican Party have begun internal deliberations over making fundamental changes to the way its presidential nominees are chosen, a recognition that the chaotic process that played out this year is seriously flawed and helped exacerbate tensions within the party." Among the possible changes: forbidding independent voters to cast ballots in Republican primaries, and "doubling the number of early states to eight."

Source:
LEVERAGE
Kasich Tells His Delegates to Remain Pledged to Him
8 hours ago
THE LATEST

Citing the unpredictable nature of this primary season and the possible leverage they could bring at the convention, John Kasich is hanging onto his 161 delegates. "Kasich sent personal letters Monday to Republican officials in the 16 states and the District of Columbia where he won delegates, requesting that they stay bound to him in accordance with party rules."

Source:
EFFECTIVE NEXT MONTH
House GOP Changes Rules for Spending Measures
8 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"Speaker Paul Ryan is changing the rules of how the House will consider spending measures to try to prevent Democrats from offering surprise amendments that have recently put the GOP on defense. ... Ryan announced at a House GOP conference meeting Tuesday morning that members will now have to submit their amendments ahead of time so that they are pre-printed in the Congressional Record, according to leadership aides." The change will take effect after the Memorial Day recess.

Source:
×