This is what I think we’re seeing:
The president has backed away from a military strike in Syria. But he can’t acknowledge this or act as if it is true. He is acting and talking as if he’s coolly, analytically, even warily contemplating the Russian proposal and the Syrian response. The proposal, he must know, is absurd. Bashar Assad isn’t going to give up all his hidden weapons in wartime, in the middle of a conflict so bitter and severe that his forces this morning reportedly bombed parts of Damascus, the city in which he lives. In such conditions his weapons could not be fully accounted for, packed up, transported or relinquished, even if he wanted to. But it will take time—weeks, months—for the absurdity to become obvious. And it is time the president wants. Because with time, with a series of statements, negotiations, ultimatums, promises and proposals, the Syria crisis can pass. It can dissipate into the air, like gas.
The president will keep the possibility of force on the table, but really he’s lunging for a lifeline he was lucky to be thrown.
Why is he backing off? Because he knows he doesn’t have the American people and isn’t going to get them. The polls, embarrassingly, show the more people hear the less they support it. The president’s problem with his own base was probably startling to him, and sobering. He knows he was going to lose Congress, not only the House but very possibly—likely, I’d say—the Senate. The momentum was all against him. And he never solved—it was not solvable—his own Goldilocks problem: A strike too small is an embarrassment, a strike too big could topple the Assad regime and leave Obama responsible for a complete and cutthroat civil war involving terrorists, foreign operatives, nihilists, jihadists, underemployed young men, and some really nice, smart people. Obama didn’t want to own that, or the fires that could engulf the region once Syria went up.
His plan was never good. The choices were never good. In any case he was going to lose either in terms of domestic prestige, the foreign result or both. Likely both.
He got himself into it and now Vladimir Putin, who opposes U.S. policy in Syria and repeatedly opposed a strike, is getting him out. This would be coldly satisfying for Putin and no doubt personally galling for Obama—another reason he can’t look as if he’s lunging.
A serious foreign-policy intellectual said recently that Putin’s problem is that he’s a Russian leader in search of a Nixon, a U.S. president he can really negotiate with, a stone player who can talk grand strategy and the needs of his nation, someone with whom he can thrash it through and work it out. Instead he has Obama, a self-besotted charismatic who can’t tell the difference between showbiz and strategy, and who enjoys unburdening himself of moral insights to his peers.
But Putin has no reason to want a Syrian conflagration. He is perhaps amused to have a stray comment by John Kerry be the basis for a resolution of the crisis. The hidden rebuke: It means that when Putin met with Obama at the G-20 last week Obama, due to his lack of competence, got nothing. But a stray comment by the Secretary of State? Sure, why not rub Obama’s face in it.
All this, if it is roughly correct, is going to make the president’s speech tonight quite remarkable. It will be a White House address in which a president argues for an endeavor he is abandoning. It will be a president appealing for public support for an action he intends not to take.
We’ve never had a presidential speech like that!
So what will he say? Some guesses.
He will not really be trying to “convince the public.” He will be trying to move the needle a little, which will comfort those who want to say he retains a matchless ability to move the masses. It will make him feel better. And it will send the world the message: Hey, this isn’t a complete disaster. The U.S. president still has some juice, and that juice can still allow him to surprise you, so watch it.
He will attempt to be morally compelling and rhetorically memorable. He will probably, like Susan Rice yesterday, attempt to paint a graphic portrait of what chemical weapons do—the children in their shrouds, the suffering parents, what such deaths look like and are. This is not meaningless: the world must be reminded what weapons of mass destruction are, and what the indifference of the world foretells.
He will claim the moral high ground. He will temporarily reserve the use of force and welcome recent diplomatic efforts. He will suggest it was his threat of force that forced a possible diplomatic solution. His people will be all over the airwaves saying it was his deft leadership and steely-eyed threat to use force that allowed for a diplomatic break.
The real purpose of the speech will be to lay the predicate for a retrospective judgment of journalists and, later, historians. He was the president who warned the world and almost went—but didn’t go—to war to make a point that needed making.
Before or after the speech there will be some quiet leaking to the press that yes, frankly, the president, with so many difficult domestic issues facing him and Congress in the fall, wanted, sympathetically, to let lawmakers off the hook. They never wanted to vote on this.
Once that was true, they didn’t. But now, having seen the polls and heard from their constituents, a lot of them are raring to go, especially Republicans. It is Democrats who were caught in the crosshairs between an antiwar base and a suddenly hawkish president. But again, a Democratic White House can’t admit it put its people in a fix like that.
In any case it’s good for America that we’ve dodged either bad outcome: Congress votes no and the president moves anyway, or Congress votes no and he doesn’t. Both possibilities contained dangers for future presidents.
The president will assert that as a lover of peace he welcomes the Russian move and reports of the positive Syrian reaction, that he will closely monitor the situation, set deadlines. He will speak of how he understands the American people, after the past 12 years, after previous and painful mistakes by their leaders, would feel so reluctant for any military engagement. He not only understands this reluctance, he shares it. He knows he was elected, in part, because he would not think of war as the first, or even second or third, option. But he has a higher responsibility now, and it is to attempt to warn the world of the moral disaster of the use of weapons of mass destruction. If we don’t move in the firmest opposition our children will face a darker future.
The speech will end. Polls will be taken. Maybe a mild uptick, maybe a flatline. Probably more or less the latter—people have made up their mind. They sense the crisis has passed or is passing. They’re not keen for more presidential rhetoric.
* * *
Then get ready for the spin job of all spin jobs. It’s already begun: the White House is beginning to repeat that a diplomatic solution only came because the president threatened force. That is going to be followed by something that will grate on Republicans, conservatives, and foreign-policy journalists and professionals. But many Democrats will find it sweet, and some in the political press will go for it, if for no other reason than it’s a new story line.
It is that Syria was not a self-made mess, an example of historic incompetence. It was Obama’s Cuban Missile Crisis—high-stakes, eyeball-to-eyeball, with weapons of mass destruction and an implacable foe. The steady waiting it out, the inner anguish, the idea that crosses the Telex that seems to soften the situation. A cool, calibrated, chancy decision to go with the idea, to make a measured diplomatic concession. In the end it got us through the crisis.
Really, they’re going to say this. And only in part because this White House is full of people who know nothing—really nothing—about history. They’ve only seen movies.
The only question is who plays Bobby. Get ready for a leak war between Kerry’s staff and Hillary Clinton’s
An important thing. The president will be tempted, in his embarrassment, to show a certain dry and contemplative distance from Putin. The Obama White House should go lightly here: Putin could always, in his pique, decide to make things worse, not better. It would be good for Obama to show graciousness and appreciation. Yes, this will leave Putin looking and feeling good. But that’s not the worst thing that ever happened. And Putin has played this pretty well.