In advance of the his speech to the nation Tuesday night, no one believes that Barack Obama’s bid for authorization to use military force against Syria is going well. The latest counts show it failing in the House and in trouble in the Senate, especially if 60 votes will be required for passage.
The president has given the country ample time to debate the issue. Over the weekend, reporters came in from congressional town hall meetings across the country to report that calls to Capitol Hill were running as much as 500 to 1 against giving Obama the authorization he seeks.
For all that, however, the president may still have an opportunity to pull a rabbit out of his hat.
Imagine the accolades he would receive from a fawning media if, during his speech, he announced that he and Secretary of State John Kerry had, through adroit negotiations with members of the Arab League and the industrialized nations attending the G-20 summit, made it possible to avert the need to use force to punish the Syrian government for its use of chemical weapons against rebel forces. [Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]
Instead of announcing his intention to go ahead with a surgical strike against military installations around Damascus, imagine if Obama said he had arranged with Russian President Vladimir Putin to neutralize the situation by having Syria voluntarily surrender its remaining stock of chemical weapons to the Arab League or to Russia itself, and, by doing this, had side-stepped the need for military action by the United States.
Obama would no doubt be hailed as a peacemaker, worthy of the Nobel Prize awarded to him shortly after he became president. In all the hoopla it would be quickly forgotten that he had “saved America” from a war he himself had attempted to initiate.
Speculation is rising quickly as the speech draws near that this outcome, or something close to it, is where things are in fact headed, toward some face-saving solution that will allow Obama to claim credit for having pushed a thoughtful, reasonable, carrot-and stick approach that demonstrated real leadership. At the same time, it allows Assad to dodge a bullet, both literally and figuratively, while Putin can promote himself as a man of peace willing to lead the world in standing up to superpowers trying to dictate the policies of other nations and, when necessary, threatening to use force to back their wishes up.
It should be lost on no one that there are no more superpowers; there is only the United States. When Putin talks about superpowers, he is talking about America, the land of the free and the home of the brave. The so-called compromise solution, if that is what occurs, is actually a product of the perception that the United States is weak and can be trifled with. After all, it was the Russians who provided to the United Nations the report that said it was the rebels, not the Syrian government, that had the chemical weapons.
Endings like these, while appropriate in Hollywood movies, rarely appear on the world stage. When they do they are more like Munich, which ended with British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain dramatically proclaiming that he and Herr Hitler has achieved “peace in our time,” while the Nazi dictator was merely pausing to digest the Sudetenland before gobbling up the rest of Czechoslovakia.
If a negotiated outcome that led to Syria turning over its chemical weapons to an essentially neutral power was the objective all along, why the rush to war on the part of the Obama administration. Why the strong declarations from the president and Kerry? Why allow Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to go to Capitol Hill and fumble embarrassingly before Congress? It is because the president would look better in the end if, having taken us to the brink of a possible war, he was willing to let cooler heads prevail in the interests of peace.
Having it happen and planning for it to happen are two very different things. One is about the luck that sometimes comes upon those who live a public life; the other reflects a cynical approach to the very business of government, of leadership both domestic and international, that is the utmost in disrespect for the people of this country and the world.
Hopefully no such deal was in the works before the president first went before the nation. Hopefully he was honest and forthright in his declaration of the need to respond decisively to the use of chemical weapons by Assad. Hopefully there will be no war. Hopefully, there will be no need for a military strike against Syria. And hopefully we have not all just been played.