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. 
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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.


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