War Stories

Your Move, Putin

Obama’s speech may not have sounded novel, but the president may have helped his cause in unexpected ways.

President Obama spoke to the nation on Tuesday night to address the crisis in Syria.

Photo by Evan Vucci-Pool/Getty Images

If Russian president Vladimir Putin had put forth his peace plan a few days earlier than he did, it’s doubtful that President Obama would have bothered to deliver a primetime address Tuesday night. What he said—Syria is still dangerous, but there’s no need to act just yet while we pursue this new diplomatic path—doesn’t move the plot forward or require the nation’s rapt attention.

And yet the surprise twist from Moscow might well place Obama in an equally unexpected win-win position. The first of the two wins is obvious. Putin’s move rescues Obama from what would almost certainly have been the most devastating defeat of his presidency. The speech was originally intended as a last-ditch effort to convince Congress to approve a bill authorizing him to use force against Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria—a bill that the House of Representatives seemed set to vote down by a huge margin. Now, the vote can be put off while diplomacy is given another try.

The second win is iffier, but it seems that Putin is wriggling in a trap of his own making. On Monday, as everyone knows, Secretary of State John Kerry said, perhaps offhandedly, that the U.S. air strikes against Syria could be called off if Assad placed all of his chemical weapons under international control—to which Putin replied, “Yes, let’s do that.” Obama had scheduled several TV interviews that day, for the purpose of making his case for an attack; but now that Putin’s plan was headline news, he changed course and said this could be a game-changer.

At that point, France—the one major ally that had proclaimed solidarity with Obama from the outset of this crisis—announced that it was drafting a U.N. Security Council resolution to call for an international takeover of Syria’s chemical arsenal, with severe penalties if Assad didn’t cooperate. And then Putin backpedaled, saying that Russia would veto any U.N. resolution—at which point many political figures, even those who welcomed this twist, suspected that Putin’s offer was simply a ploy to buy time.

The upshot is this: If Russia backs away from a real deal, after exciting so many players to its possibilities, Obama could emerge with his air strikes gaining greater support—at home and abroad.

To this end, Obama and his aides have crafted a narrative that makes everything they’ve done in recent days—the slips and slides, as well as the shrewd moves—seem smart and bold: namely, that Putin proposed this plan (and Assad subsequently announced that Syria would join the other 189 nations that have signed an international treaty prohibiting the use of chemical weapons) only because the United States had threatened to use force.

This narrative may even be true. In any case, hours before his speech, Obama met with Republican leaders to urge them not to say or do anything that might undermine the leverage that is moving Russia and Syria in a peaceful direction. Some emerged from the session agreeing to do so—and thus also agreeing with the plea’s premise.

Agreeing with the premise doesn’t necessarily mean that these Republicans (or the many liberal Democrats leery of military action) will vote to authorize the use of force if Putin or Assad backs away from the peace plan. But the new dynamic gives Obama more time, it gives his argument more force, and, if the deal does fall apart, it might make the legislators feel that Russia or Syria has betrayed them, too.

The first three-quarters of Tuesday’s speech—the sections that were probably written before Putin’s surprise move—restated the arguments that Obama has been making for some time now, but with some new details about the intelligence linking Assad’s regime to the deadliest chemical attacks. Obama may have picked up a few more supporters from these facts alone.

However, his case still contains contradictory strands that will cause many to worry that any U.S. military action, however small and brief it might be at the outset, could escalate to wider and deeper involvement. Obama repeated his oft-stated point that the plan calls merely for “a targeted strike to achieve a clear objective: deterring the use of chemical weapons and degrading Assad’s capabilities.” There will be “no boots on the ground,” as there were in Iraq and Afghanistan, nor even a “prolonged air campaign” as in Libya or Kosovo.

Yet he also stressed that he would not launch a mere “pinprick strike,” adding, “The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks. Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver.” And, while he repeated his assurances that the he had no interest or ability to tilt the Syrian civil war through military force, he also said that “the day after any military action, we would redouble our efforts to achieve a political solution that strengthens those who reject the forces of tyranny and extremism”—which sounds a lot like trying to tilt the Syrian civil war.

Obama has stressed that air strikes would be launched for the sole purpose of enforcing and preserving the international norms against the use of chemical weapons. The business about achieving a political solution that strengthens moderate rebels is a separate diplomatic objective. In the abstract, there’s something to this distinction. But in practice, the political and the military are unavoidably conjoined; weakening Assad’s military—an explicit objective of the air strikes—would, by nature, also strengthen the rebels. How does Obama plan to calibrate the air strikes so they are heavy enough to affect Assad and his generals (we don’t do pinpricks) but not so heavy that it draws us into the civil war? And how, on “the day after any military action,” do we “redouble our efforts to achieve a political solution”? If the initial strikes don’t accomplish either goal—if they neither degrade Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons nor facilitate a peaceful solution—will the redoubling of our efforts include additional military strikes? And if not, what will they include?

President Obama has made a solid case for action. The prospects for some sort of a solution—diplomatic or military—are a bit stronger than they were a few days ago. But there are still many questions, and there is still cause for apprehension.