- By Peter FeaverPeter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.
A political crisis that began with a gaffe might end with a gaffe. The Syrian WMD crisis began with U.S. President Barack Obama surprising his staff by drawing a not-fully-thought-out "red line" on Syrian chemical weapons use. And now the White House is boasting that Secretary of State John Kerry’s gaffe about Syria handing over chemical weapons potentially provides the "significant breakthrough" they were seeking all along.
(Gaffes that get spun as wisdom are a theme with the administration’s Middle East policy. Recall how Obama’s Iran policy was paralyzed for his first year in office because of his campaign gaffe regarding direct face-to-face negotiations with then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a gaffe that his campaign team elevated into a short-lived doctrine.)
The White House responded quickly to Kerry’s unintended diplomatic overture. Not quickly enough to stop the State Department from trying to walk it back, but quickly enough to raise doubts concerning what this crisis was all about from the start.
For let us be clear: This diplomatic gambit addresses only one of the four principal drivers of the crisis. It makes the other three worse, and that fact will become clearer in the coming weeks.
First, the crisis was partly about the need to defend Obama’s prestige and to help him with his political fights with a recalcitrant Congress. The decision to confront Syria came out of the need to back up Obama’s red line. If Obama’s words were seen as only a bluff, he would lose credibility as a world leader. The decision to throw the issue to Congress came out of a desire to call out Obama’s critics in Congress and make them take responsibility for the issue rather than simply criticize the president for his halting efforts. Both of these decisions backfired, and Obama was headed to a political defeat as embarrassing as any a president has suffered in recent decades. Faced with an array of bad options, seizing the Russian gambit was the least-worst way to minimize the political damage to Obama’s prestige, allowing him to delay indefinitely the congressional rebuke. Every other likely way out of the crisis was going to hurt Obama more, at least in the short run.
Second, the crisis was partly about the desire to deter Bashar al-Assad from using chemical weapons again. This gambit does little to address this concern — far less than the enthusiastic White House reaction would suggest. I hope the president and his advisors are rereading the history of Saddam Hussein’s 12-year cat-and-mouse game with inspectors after Desert Storm. By embracing the Russian proposal, the most likely result is that Obama has gotten himself ensnared in another such hunting expedition. Anyone care to bet how much overlap there is between the stockpile reports of the U.S. intelligence community, the Russian/international inspectors, and the Assad regime? But it is worse than that. The Russian/international inspectors will not be able to quickly secure all the stockpiles (even if supremely effective and efficient, it would take years to accomplish that), but they will immediately provide human shields that prevent future strikes against Syria. So if the need arises for Assad to use chemical weapons again, he will have ample supply at his disposal and a powerful deterrent against reprisals to boot. A shot across the bow warning of other shots to come this is not, which is partly why the Syrian regime has welcomed the Russian initiative.
Third, the crisis was partly about the desire to help the moderate rebels in their struggle with Assad. The Obama administration was painfully contradictory about this — the proposed strikes would affect the balance, the proposed strikes would not affect the balance — but lost in all of that muddle was the fact that Obama’s response to Assad’s previous uses of chemical weapons was Obama’s public commitment earlier in the summer to arm the rebels, i.e. to help them in their struggle with Assad. (Yes, I know that the administration apparently did not actually follow through with this commitment, but the commitment was made nonetheless.) The Russian gambit may well be the way out of the crisis that does the maximum amount of damage to the moderate rebels. It exposes their patron as a paper tiger, it brings in Russian boots on the ground to bolster their enemy, and it leaves al Qaeda the only viable game in town. This, too, helps explain why the Syrian regime has welcomed the Russian initiative and why "our" side in the civil war has not.
Fourth, the crisis was partly about the desire to bolster our coercive diplomacy with Iran. The Iranian regime would see that U.S. threats to use force mean something, and thus the threat to use force to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability would be stronger. The Obama administration has made it clear that it believes the only way a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue could be reached is if Iran fears a worse outcome if it crosses the nuclear threshold. Substituting the old 1990s cat-and-mouse game for military strikes nicely confirms Iran’s preferred approach: divide the international coalition with indefinite and indecisive diplomatic negotiations while slowly developing a breakout capacity. Is there anyone who thinks that the way the Syrian crisis has unfolded thus far has actually reinforced Obama’s threats to Iran?
The obvious counterargument to this analysis is that the last three desiderata were already lost when Obama was unable to build the political support he wanted to back up his Syrian red line. So perhaps the Russian gambit just kicked those three dead horses. In view of that, minimizing the political damage to Obama was the best the administration could do at this point. That appears to be what has carried the day inside the White House.
Or perhaps I have missed it altogether, and Obama will lay out an altogether different explanation tonight that will fit all the past three weeks into a coherent strategy for confronting the challenges in the Middle East. But from the present vantage point, it sure looks like Obama has given up on all but one of the objectives at stake. And I sure do not want to accept the inference that this was what it was about all along.