In his masterful portrayal of John F. Kennedy, Ted Sorensen, special counsel to the president, revealed JFK’s occasional frustration with the job of president. One evening, while changing clothes to get ready for a televised address to the nation on the Cuban missile crisis, following a contentious meeting with leaders of Congress, Kennedy turned to Sorensen in disgust and said: “If they want this ––- job, they can have it.”
You can’t help but imagine that Barack Obama feels the same way today about Syria. For the last two years, on every front, he’s been “damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t.” We should supply arms to the rebels; no, if we do so, we’re only helping al-Qaida. We should mount a no-fly zone over rebel-held territory; no, because that’s an act of war, and we don’t want to get involved in another war in the Middle East. We should have bombed Syria the first time they used chemical weapons; no, the president can’t use military force without congressional authorization. The poor guy can’t win for losing.
Now, admittedly, part of the blame for confusion over Syria rests with the president himself. To put it mildly, his approach to Syria has not always been steady or easy to follow. For two years, our stated goal was to get rid of Bashar al-Assad, but we did nothing about it. When Obama walked into the Rose Garden on Aug. 31, we reporters expected him to announce plans for a military strike. Instead, he announced plans to consult Congress first. Then, when Congress rushed back to vote, he changed course again and asked them not to vote while he explored Syria’s sudden offer, conveyed through Russian President Vladimir Putin, to surrender its chemical weapons to U.N. inspectors.
And now the Eeyores of Washington are quick to point out all the perils of Obama’s pursuing this possible 11th-hour diplomatic solution. For starters, you have to trust both Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad. Then you’ve got to get a resolution through the United Nations Security Council. Then you have to send in a team of U.N. monitors, which might include a few Americans. So that does mean we’re putting “boots on the ground.” And then you have to locate all the weapons, round ’em up, secure ’em and then destroy ’em. All of this must be accomplished in the middle of a civil war. And, of course, this whole process will take a lot of time: weeks, months, maybe even years. How do we know Assad won’t use chemical weapons again in the meantime?
Enough, already. There are a hundred reasons for not taking the Russian proposal seriously. But there’s one reason why Obama has no choice: Because it’s the best possible option. True, getting the United Nations to agree on a plan, getting Putin and Assad to stick to their word and getting rid of all those weapons won’t be easy. But, if we can pull it off, it’s a heck of a lot better than another war. And the United States always has the military option available – with the support of more countries, next time – if everything falls apart.
There’s one other potentially big payoff. Our end goal, remember, is the removal of Bashar al-Assad from power. Negotiations on the surrender and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons will bring all parties to the table: the United States, Russia, Syria and the rebels – who must agree to safe conduct for U.N. personnel. It will require concessions by Assad. It will deprive him of his most lethal weapons. There’s no guarantee, but it will at least improve the chances that, once the issue of WMD is resolved, all parties can continue negotiations toward the end of that nation’s deadly civil war and a transition of power in Syria.
In light of that big picture, all the grumbling about Obama’s clumsy handling of Syria seems petty. So what if his course of action’s been uncertain, even sloppy, at times? So what if he’s pivoted from diplomacy to military action and back to diplomacy again? It’s not the process that counts, it’s the end result.
So far, President Obama has brought Syria to its knees with the threat of a military strike. If he can now negotiate the peaceful surrender of Syria’s chemical weapons without firing a shot, he will have earned his Nobel Peace Prize.