Obama Blinks on Syria: Who Won and Who Lost?

This has been a wild afternoon, for a change in a good way. Obama has overruled John Kerry, Susan Rice, and Samantha Powers in their opposition earlier today to the Russian face-saving proposal, which had been accepted by Syria and endorsed by the Ban Ki-Moon and David Cameron, of having Syria destroy its chemical weapons. The State Department tried walking back Kerry’s remarks that Syria needed to give up its nasty WMD and Susan Rice said that only regime change would do.

But at the end of the afternoon, Obama said he was willing to pursue the Russian plan. From Politico:

President Barack Obama would put strikes against Syria on hold if Bashar Assad’s regime were to turn over control of its chemical weapons, he said Monday, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that he will wait to hear the president make his case to the nation Tuesday before holding an initial vote on military action.

The moves came at the tail end of a tumultuous day for a White House that appeared to be knocked off-message by Secretary of State John Kerry’s positive response to a question about whether the administration would consider a proposal that would allow Syria to avoid a military strike by turning over any stockpile of chemical weapons.

The president said his team will engage in talks with Russia and Syria. “We’re going to run this to ground,” he told CNN. “And John Kerry and the rest of my national security team will engage with the Russians and the international community to see can we arrive at something that is enforceable and serious.”

Not surprisingly for an Administration which is fond of taking unusually aggressive measures to rewrite history, the Politico write-up reveals that the Administration is trying to spin that this plan is moving forward due to, rather than despite, Kerry’s efforts.

But what appears instead to have occurred is that support for the AUMF collapsed in the Senate. And it apparently was not due to just to the wild card of the Russian proposal but also Kerry’s ineptitude. From Jane Hamsher:

Update 12:30 PM: Senate sources say that John Kerry’s comments this morning about an “unbelievably small” planned attack on Syria have “lost them every undecided Republican in the Senate,” and the vote may be pulled.

“Even Democratic loyalists like Barbara Boxer can’t afford to have a 35-65 vote on their record.”

Remarkably, during the Senate debate, AIPAC loyalist Diane Feinstein voiced support for the Russian idea.

And the Congresscritters were running from the AUMF sinking ship. Hamsher again:

5:14: Sent. Kelly Ayotte (R-NY) previously said “I am convinced we must take this limited military action against the Assad regime’s military capabilities.”, but tells the Hill today she’s undecided.

5:34: Ben Cardin (D-MD) tweets that although he voted for attacking Syria in committee but now “I have concerns about action, right now we need to deal with #Syria via diplomacy if possible.” Moving him to undecided because it sounds like he wouldn’t support a vote if it was taken this week.

6:02: Johnny Isakson (R-GA) goes from undecided to firm nay, per the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Everyone was watching the Senators from the defense contractor states as the canaries in the coal mine. If guys like Shelby, Isakson, Sessions et al started going against, it would be taken as a sign that it was all over.

6:26: Majority Leader Harry Reid did not file cloture today, which means there will not be a vote on Wednesday in the Senate.

Mind you, this national security team is capable of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. All we have at this juncture is an agreement in principle. This deal could still fall apart. Nevertheless, this is huge progress relative to where things stood 24 hours ago.

So who has won and lost? A starter list, readers invited to contribute in comments:


John Kerry, big time. One Beltway insider says that Kerry has proven to be so inept that he doesn’t see how Kerry survives. Obama needs to get rid of Kerry to preserve his credibility. The problem is you can also say the same of Samantha Powers and Susan Rice. But Politico also has a piece up on Kerry’s actions today, which it tries to frame charitably as, “Throughout his career, Kerry’s had a problem with words.” This piece reads like a PR plant to try to salvage Kerry and Rice. My Beltway sources think he’s become too toxic to be redeemed, but the Politico reporting may persuade people removed from the action otherwise. It could also have the nasty side effect of emboldening the national security team that can’t shoot straight at precisely the wrong moment.

AIPAC. I can’t recall AIPAC ever taking such a visible defeat. But the Israel lobby’s eventual decline is inevitable. Young Jews poll as not having much affinity for Israel, and many are firmly opposed to its policies in Palestine. Indeed, I’ve long suspected that Israel’s efforts to escalate against Iran aren’t driven as much by Iran’s projected timetable for nuclear development as by the recognition that demographic change in the US means its days of being able to rely on the US as a staunch ally are numbered.

The Saudis.

Al Quaeda.

The Syrian opposition. Lambert: “Where were the spokesmen? The exiled government? (And IIRC, check me, the video shown on Capitol Hill was a year old. WTF?)”

The War Party is a loser. Whoever propagated the phrase “The War Party” is a winner.

Obama. As one political expert put it, “This was a wild and confused routine. Obama comes out looking stupid. But he would have lost ten times as much if the US had launched airstrikes.” A Congressional staffer said, “Obama ‘s been amazingly inept, but at least we now know he isn’t self-destructive. But he will no longer have any real influence on policy.”

David Cameron is a loser or more accurately, more of a loser.


Putin. The score so far is Putin 2, Obama 0. And Putin’s wins against the world’s only, and widely resented superpower has boosted his stature considerably.

Alan Grayson. Grayson was out early and aggressively against attacking Syria. He went toe-to-toe against the White House and won. Admittedly, the Russia move was a lucky break, but Grayson was also doing a good deal behind the scenes to whip opposition to the AUMF. He’s taken vocal stances on two major issues, financial services reform and US adventurism in the Middle East, which now gives him a considerable authority in the House.

Justin Amash. Amash was less visible on Syria than in the fight against the NSA, but he was still an important player and garnered more power and political good karma points.

Assad. He’ll be negotiated with as a ruling head of state.

Charlie Rose. Lambert: “Nice get on the Assad interview, and who was the genius PR shop that booked it?!”

Larry Summers. If Obama has pushed ahead on Syria, either with no Congressional vote or only Senate approval, the liberals and Republicans would be hopping mad and the widely-anticipated Summers nomination would be an obvious way to retaliate. That does not mean Summers is a shoe-in, but the revenge motive will at least be out of the picture.

Syrian civilians who would be collateral damage in the alternative future with war.

War-weary American voters and US soldiers.

This piece is cross-posted from Naked Capitalism with permission.

3 Responses to "Obama Blinks on Syria: Who Won and Who Lost?"

  1. ray johns   September 12, 2013 at 4:09 pm

    Smart power linked to workable diplomacy. Look at what Obama says that he wants in Syria–he wants Assad's delivery systems for his chemical weapons stockpile either destroyed by a U S Tomahawk missile strike or by a negotiation led by Russia and France to have Assad's chemical weapons delivered to international control for eventual destruction. That outcome wouldn't be aiding al Qaeda in Syria , but would keep Assad's weapons of mass destruction from ever falling into their hands or being used ever again. Ideally it might take a year after a agreement has been reached to safely destroy all of Assad's chemical weapons and would also mean some kind of cessation of hostilities be put in place so that a U N disposal team could work in safety to finish the job. It would be quite a diplomatic accomplishment if Obama and Putin could pull it off and create new momentum to move towards the international Geneva I agreement at ending the Syrian civil war.

  2. ray johns   September 12, 2013 at 4:10 pm

    The Obama Administration 's reliance on John Kerry's State Department diplomatic plan in working with Russia and Iran who share our own fear and anxiety over the spread of chemical weapons appears to be the more rational solution and best option for success right now with the least number of bad outcomes . Obama's bold policy holds at bay the real war hawks in Congress (John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and James Inhofe) who want deeper military commitments made by the Obama Administration to the rebel factions fighting Assad and re-engages Russia into the peace process in Syria —what needed to happen if Geneva I ,already passed by the U N Security Counsel ,was ever to have a chance to bear any fruit.
    It looks like the Obama/Kerry diplomacy is working not only to solidify Western support but Iran and China(Syria's other two main allies ) on achieving a disarmament plan for Assad's chemical weapons without a shot being fired!

    • ray johns   September 12, 2013 at 4:13 pm

      " China welcomes and supports Russia’s proposal to have Syria hand over chemical weapons to international control, the Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman said Tuesday.

      • Iran said it welcomes the Russian initiative for Syria “to put a halt to militarism in the region,” according to a banner on state-run Press TV’s website.

      • Iranian President Hassan Rouhani — whose nation has been a longtime ally of Syria and staunch adversary of the United States, which has led efforts to stymie Iran’s nuclear program — said Tuesday on Press TV that Iran is willing to do whatever it can to prevent a broader regional war he surmised would be “very dangerous … first of all for those who would initiate that war.” Speaking of weapons of mass destruction, which include nuclear as well as chemical weapons, Rouhani said, “We would like to see a WMD-free region, including chemical weapons.”
      — President Obama Points to “Encouraging Signs” in Syrian Diplomatic Efforts http://via.whnt.com/SPxd8pk