Yesterday the White House put on a full court press to make the case for military action in Syria. What was supposed to be a strong unified performance played out across the national news networks turned out to be yet another version of amateur hour.
The president sat with six national news anchors and made his case for military action. He stressed the importance of sending a strong, clear message to the Syrian regime that the use of chemical weapons would not go without severe consequences.
Meanwhile his chief diplomat, Secretary of State John Kerry, was telling his audience how “unbelievably small” these strikes would be and that they were not intended to alter the course of the Syrian civil war.
(Which poses for us the question: if this military action is so “unbelievably small” and will be inconsequential in altering the course of the Syria civil conflict then why seek congressional approval? Or why do it at all for that matter. But we digress.)
Then, in response to a reporter’s question: “What could Syria do to stop the US from striking?” Kerry shrugged and nonchalantly said that they could hand over all of their chemical weapons and promise to never develop them again. It was intended as a rhetorical response, not a policy statement.
That is until the Russian leadership seized on Kerry’s remark and said that it was a great idea; to which the Syrian leadership agreed. France then offered to bring the measure up before the UN Security Council.
To be fair, a similar proposal has been in the works within the halls of congress. But the idea had lost steam until Kerry’s offhanded remarks.
Suddenly Washington insiders were scrambling.
Senate Majority Leader grabbed the first microphone that he could find and said the senate would put off a vote on authorization until more information on the latest developments could be examined.
The White House tried desperately to gain control of the message. They said that while they were encouraged by the discussion, they would remain skeptical and cautious in their approach. The president himself made it clear that this sudden apparent capitulation on the part of the Syrian regime came only as a direct result of his very clear intention to use military force. A host of presidential standard bearers led by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed the president.
That breeze that blew through the trees yesterday afternoon was the collective sigh of relief coming out of Washington.
Nobody in Washington wants to take this politically toxic vote. Not the White House, not congress…nobody. They were all desperately seeking a way off the ledge without jumping.
And Vladimir Putin handed it to them.
The president is scheduled to address the American people tonight. His job is to convince the American people that a military strike against Syria is the right thing to do. All the poling suggests that his task is almost impossible. There is no appetite in this country for another military intervention in the Middle East…no matter how “unbelievably small” it might be.
Given the recent overtures of the Russians and the Syrians we expect that tonight’s address will take a different tract. The president will still make the case for taking out Assad’s chemical weapon capabilities. But he will remind us that he has always favored a diplomatic solution. And since Assad does not pose an imminent threat to the homeland he will acknowledge that there is still time for the peaceful solution that he has always preferred. He will comment on his skepticism of the Russian proposal and he will remind us that such a proposal only came about as the result of the very real prospect of US military intervention.
Stay strong! Save face!
When the president finishes his remarks he should get on the phone and thank his not so very best friend, Vladimir Putin.
Because Vladimir Putin just threw the president a lifeline.