The U.S. came close (we are told, anyway) to bombing Syria in retaliation over the alleged use of chemical weapons in the civil war there. Since then, democracy-challenged Russian President Vladimir Putin has stepped in, and is helping to broker a deal by which another bad actor, Syria, would give up its weapons.
That should sound like a pretty good outcome, if it works out. But in Washington, the conversation has been all about image and what has become known in Beltway speak as "messaging."
President Obama has been criticized for looking weak – first, more than a year ago, for not being tougher on Syria, and now, for vocalizing his understandable reluctance to bomb a Middle Eastern country. He's been accused of offering mixed messages, by saying the U.S. needed to enforce the "red line" against chemical weapons, but then saying he took no pleasure in doing so. He was criticized for thinking about bombing without consulting Congress, then chided as indecisive for listening to those criticisms and asking for Congress's opinion (though not its advance approval, Obama was quick to note).
Then Putin wrote a critical op-ed in The New York Times, criticizing the U.S. for its assertion of "exceptionalism," and saying the rest of the world had grown tired of being pushed around by America.
There is some legitimacy to much of this criticism. But the more important point is, so what?
Who cares if Obama didn't deliver an unequivocal, we're-going-to-bomb-them speech, especially if such a speech would lock us more securely into a wartime box? Was it the threat of an attack that got Syrian leader Bashar Assad to talk to Putin? Was it Putin's desire to gain some level of legitimacy and credibility on the world stage that led him to talk to Assad? Was it Putin's own concerns about chemical weapons being used by insurgents in his own country that led him to get involved? Who cares?
Being an adult, being a diplomat, and, yes, being a leader means staying focused on the final goal – not on how you got there. So what if Putin wags his finger at the U.S. in an American newspaper? He can bully us on Facebook if he wants. Does it matter, if the end result is Syria giving up chemical weapons without the U.S. having to risk American lives or spend American dollars to make it happen?
Obama had indeed gotten himself into something of a box by drawing a "red line" against chemical weapons (and it should be noted that many of his critics on the right were some of the ones pushing him to get tough on Syria). But Assad was in a box, too. He didn't want to get bombed. He threatened retaliation if he was bombed – and didn't really have much to back that up. But politically, he couldn't be viewed as giving in to Obama or to Secretary of State John Kerry. His only face-saving measure was to deal with someone like Putin – an "imperfect messenger," to borrow a phrase from Anthony Weiner. But Putin was probably the only person who could deliver it.
Style points do matter, sometimes. But they are not an end in themselves. Looking tough or decisive is not success. Getting rid of the chemical weapons is what will count as a win.