U.S.

Obama's good fortune on Syria

Commentary: The president has taken a political hit but dodged a serious crisis of confidence.

U.S. President Barack Obama attends the second working session of the G-20 summit on Sept. 6, 2013. in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Sergei Guneyev/AFP/Getty Images

Secretary of State John Kerry's announcement Saturday morning of a framework agreement with Russia on dismantling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons arsenal capped (for now, at least) what undoubtedly has been one of the most bizarre episodes in memory for U.S. foreign policy.

In the span of two weeks, U.S. plans caromed from the seemingly imminent use of force to a surprise time-out for consultation with Congress to a full-throttled presidential media blitz on the need for military strikes to slamming on the brakes and calling off the congressional vote in favor of renewed diplomacy with Russia, the U.S.'s erstwhile nemesis on Syria.

The Obama administration undoubtedly dodged a very large domestic political bullet, at least in the short term. The president took a calculated but substantial risk when he decided to slow the seemingly inexorable march toward military action against Syria and invite Congress to weigh in on the matter. All available evidence suggests that even if he somehow managed to persuade a reluctant Senate to go along, House approval was improbable at best. Had he lost a congressional vote on a military strike, the costs in political capital at home and credibility abroad, as well as to the executive branch itself, could have been severe.

The administration did not help its case or its public image by issuing cringe-worthy pronouncements, such as Kerry's promise that any military strike would be "unbelievably small." This forced Obama to reassure the American people that the U.S. military "does not do pinpricks." Satirists from "The Daily Show" to "Saturday Night Live" were doubtless exchanging high fives.

On the other hand, Kerry's seemingly off-the-cuff offer to call off military action if Assad agreed to surrender his chemical weapons turned out to be extraordinarily good political fortune. Surely Kerry did not anticipate that Russia and Syria would call his bluff. Yet they did, thereby taking the impending congressional vote -- and with it a potentially epic domestic political and international diplomatic fiasco -- off the table and the front pages.  

Obama's image as a decisive commander in chief has taken a potentially lasting hit.

For the president, this change of subject came not a moment too soon. In a CNN/ORC International poll taken on the eve of his Sept. 10 prime-time television address on Syria, public approval for his handling of foreign affairs reached a new low of 40 percent, while only 31 percent approved of his handling of the situation in Syria. At the same time, numerous surveys found fewer than 30 percent of Americans supported U.S. military action in Syria, and Obama's overall approval rating dipped to 43.5 percent in Gallup's tracking poll. One should not make too much of opinion polls taken prior to a military intervention, yet these numbers make Syria among the least popular proposed U.S. military interventions in recent memory. By comparison, in several surveys leading up to the 2011 U.S.-led intervention in Libya, half or more of the public supported the plan to establish a no-fly zone, and 43 percent approved of the administration's handling of that crisis.

Despite the surreal nature of the past two weeks' events, it is worth considering that had the administration announced such a diplomatic breakthrough before the decision to consult Congress, the media likely would have been abuzz with stories of Obama's diplomatic prowess. As it is, a more positive media narrative may yet replace or at least challenge the current dominant media representation of a feckless president stumbling and improvising his way through a crisis. Revisionist accounts have already arisen, asserting that Kerry's comments actually represented a policy option that the U.S. and Russia had been discussing for over a year.

Granted, whatever the origins of the deal, it is far from done. The U.S. and Russia are already bickering over the number of Syrian-government-controlled chemical weapons sites to be disarmed. Assad may engage in a Saddam Husseinlike cat-and-mouse game with U.N. inspectors, attempting to thwart or at least delay their efforts. And the consequences if Assad fails to fully cooperate are uncertain at best. Referral to the U.N. Security Council faces veto by Russia and China of any resolution to authorize military force. Even if every dispute can be resolved, safely dismantling all of Assad's chemical weapons would be a daunting task even absent an ongoing civil war.

Regardless, unless the deal with Russia collapses, the chances are very good that a month from now the media and public will have moved on from Syria to focus on an array of pressing domestic issues, including looming showdowns between the White House and congressional Republicans over the budget and the debt ceiling and the launch of critical elements of the Affordable Care Act. According to a Sept. 11 Gallup poll, despite all the attention heaped on Syria, Americans rate it as only the fifth most important problem facing the nation, well behind a host of domestic concerns. Whether or not Syria is ultimately disarmed and if the process drags on for many months or years, the ultimate success or failure of Obama's second term may rest far less on Syria than on those imminent domestic political battles and, of course, the state of the economy, where his approval rating stood at a precarious 43 percent in the CNN/ORC International poll -- just one percentage point higher than his approval rating on health care policy.

There has, however, been a significant political cost to Obama. His image as a decisive commander in chief has taken a potentially lasting hit. Allies and adversaries may begin to doubt America's credibility and resolve, with possible negative downstream effects on a range of issues, like negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. He has also lost precious time to make his case to the American public on his health care plan as well as on the impending budget and debt showdowns. It remains unclear how severe, widespread and long lasting the damage will be. But damage there is.

Still, given where things appeared to be heading a little over a week ago, the White House has doubtless issued a huge collective sigh of relief. However bad the Syria crisis seemed, the political outcome could have been far worse.

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