September 12, 2013
In assessing the feasibility and probability of Russia's proposal to secure Bashar Assad's chemical weapons, one overlooked factor should be paramount in our minds: Barack Obama is the luckiest politician on the face of the planet. If he were tied to a railroad track, the train would levitate and pass harmlessly over him. He's always the windshield, never the bug.
In this instance, Obama got himself into a box that would flummox Harry Houdini. In a procession of careless comments, he said Assad had to go, and that if he ever used chemical weapons against rebels, he would face "enormous consequences."
When the Syrian dictator used them anyway, Obama was forced to prepare for a military strike that found scant public support. When he tried to gain the upper hand by asking for congressional authorization, he got an arctically frigid reception.
So he faced two unpleasant possibilities: Congress would refuse, in which case he would look like a chump. Or it would agree, forcing him to carry out an attack that was likely to accomplish nothing except to wreck his approval rating.
But then along came the Russians to open an escape route. Acting in response to another unscripted remark, from Secretary of State John Kerry, they proposed to place Syria's chemical gas arsenal under international control. The Syrians responded by not only admitting that they had such weapons, but offering to surrender them.
The proposal sounded implausible and impractical, but it had too many things going for it to be passed up. Most important, it serves the interests of every important party. It spares the Syrian regime a damaging attack by the United States. It spares the rebels being gassed again. It validates the great power status of Russia — and might even win Vladimir Putin a Nobel Peace Prize.
Not least, it saves Obama from looking like an appeaser, a warmonger or an incompetent. It even allows Kerry to portray the administration as unsurpassed in its diplomatic brilliance.
"Yesterday, we challenged the regime to turn (its chemical weapons) over to the secure control of the international community so that they can be destroyed," he bragged Tuesday. He neglected to mention that when the Russians jumped at his idea, according to The New York Times, "he replied that he had merely been making a debating point."
Assad, Kerry said, caved because of the military threat. "Nothing focuses the mind like the prospect of a hanging," Kerry said. By that point, if Assad was contemplating the gallows, he probably had concluded that the Americans couldn't tie their own shoes, much less a noose.
But he may have found it harder to say "no" to Putin, his chief ally and his protector in the U.N. Security Council, where Russia had blocked action against Syria. His regime probably could survive an attack that Kerry had promised would be "unbelievably small." But its long-term prospects would be dim without Russian help.
Valerie Hudson, a professor of international relations at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, told me that this turn of events could hardly be better for the president. Once the Security Council takes ownership of the deal, she noted, "the United States is off the hook." The heavy lifting to secure and monitor the chemical weapons stores will fall to Russia and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
While the deal won't be leakproof, she argued, that's not crucial. What's crucial is "for Assad to have no incentives to use chemical weapons, but only disincentives." The disincentives are the risk of antagonizing Putin, kissing off Russian support and uniting the Security Council behind military action.
It's an uncannily fortunate turn of events for Obama, but this is the guy who won his 2004 Senate race after his chief Democratic opponent, and then the Republican nominee, fell victim to lurid scandals.
This is the guy who got Osama bin Laden after his own experts said there was only a 40 percent chance the al-Qaida leader was in the targeted building. This is the guy who got to run against John McCain and Mitt Romney, both masters of self-destruction.
Right now, it looks as though Obama's good luck will pay off again by saving him from his mistakes on Syria. In that case, his next memoir can borrow the title of boxer Rocky Graziano's: "Somebody Up There Likes Me."
Steve Chapman, a member of the Tribune's editorial board, blogs at chicagotribune.com/chapman.
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