What a coup it would be, for Team Obama to turn two weeks of dithering and squandering American credibility on the Syria question into a narrative of courage under fire and successful brinkmanship.
Could it happen? It happened for John F. Kennedy. Granted, he had Arthur Schlesinger to write a narrative for him afterward. And his administration did a better job of keeping secrets than the Obama administration does. It was only years later that the public began to realize how big a concession it was to Nikita Khrushchev to resolve the Cuban missile crisis by secretly removing U.S. theater ballistic missiles from Turkey.
The missiles of October
The missiles, which had barely arrived at their bases in Turkey in October 1962, were intended to function as a deterrent in the NATO defensive posture vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. The script of the movie Thirteen Days (Beacon Pictures, 2000) gratuitously added an erroneous adjective about the “Jupiter” missiles – “obsolete” – to suggest that what was being traded for the Soviets’ removal of their missiles from Cuba was a meaningless gesture.
But the Jupiter missiles weren’t obsolete. Production had started in 1956, and deployment of the missiles had first begun (in Italy and Turkey) in 1961. They were intended to protect NATO Europe for at least the next decade. They used liquid-fueled rockets, at a time when the U.S. had decided that the next generation of medium-range weapons would be designed to use solid fuel. But in 1962, they were our only land-mobile medium-range missiles. (The Thor missile, also liquid-fueled and with a similar range, was installed in the UK in the same time period, but used fixed launch installations only. Being deployed from the UK, its reach into the Soviet Union was much more limited.) Removing the Jupiters from Turkey meant removing the deterrent they represented, with nothing to replace it. Khrushchev got a major concession from us, in his horse-trade for the missiles in Cuba.
Nevertheless, the Cuban missile crisis lives in American memory as a triumph of U.S. tenacity in the Cold War. (It does not occupy that place in the memories of our European allies. The abrupt, unilateral decision by the Kennedy administration to simply trade away the Jupiter missiles on which the nations of Europe had understood they would be relying was one of the factors in France’s decision to separate her armed forces command structure from NATO’s.)
We don’t know whether Khrushchev’s move in Cuba was a bargaining gambit all along; I tend to doubt it. But what we do know in 2013 is that the Cuban missile crisis was not a moment of greatness for the United States. It turned out, in essence, to be a moment of extortion, for a president who was probably concerned mostly that if we attacked the Soviet missiles in Cuba, the Soviets would feel free to attack our assets on the perimeter of the Warsaw Pact.
A moment of unbelievable smallness
Fast-forward to September 2013, and review the bidding on Syria. The U.S. may or may not conduct an “unbelievably small” attack on Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons stores; the decision may or may not depend on a vote in Congress, which, as of today, looks exceptionally bleak for the president. John Kerry, speaking hypothetically a few hours ago, informed the public that there’s no way Assad would agree to resolve the chemical weapons situation by allowing the UN to inspect and take custody of his weapons – whereupon the Russians promptly made exactly that proposal, and Assad promptly voiced a favorable reaction to it.
Now the “UN inspectors” proposal looks like the perfect way out of the mess, and is gaining momentum among pundits and politicians. In an interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News today, President Obama said austerely that we would consider the option, managing not only to intimate that the option wouldn’t be on the table if not for his threat of force against Assad, but to proclaim that, if we went forward with it, he would act on the basis favored by Ronald Reagan: trust, but verify. Talk about your rhetorical-high-ground double-plays.
The Fox News panel may laugh at the transparent opportunism of it all, but as I watch the local ABC news broadcast on my TV screen as I type this, the “UN inspectors” proposal is being packaged (by ABC’s national news team) as a serious option, and the Obama administration as a serious player in it. There is no sense being conveyed of it being a cynical Russian proposal, or of the Obama administration running along behind it trying to jump on a train that’s leaving the station.
Save this post. Bookmark it. Remember the actual sequence of events (Hot Air has been bird-dogging it relentlessly), because Obama’s supporters in the media (and no doubt in Hollywood, politics, and the academy) see a light at the end of this tunnel, and they are busy writing reality out of the new narrative at this very moment. By tomorrow morning, there is every likelihood that Obama will no longer be the incompetent boob who is backing us into war in Syria, but the wily statesman who is backing Assad and the Russians into accepting a UN inspection regime in Syria, in spite of the recalcitrant Republicans in Congress whose every reaction to anything Obama wants is partisan and racist.
A good moment for Russia and Assad, however
We need not fear that Russia and Assad won’t go through with a UN-inspectors proposal. Of course they will: doing so gives the UN a stake in the status quo in Syria. It’s brilliant, for them: it leaves Assad in control of how much the UN gets to look at and take custody of, while creating the perfect pretext for freezing lines of confrontation and bleeding off momentum from the rebels.
With the rebels known to have chemical weapons of their own, it officially puts them on the same moral footing as Assad, and makes the potential of their chemical weapons arsenal an unresolved issue: one that might just remain unresolved, and keep redounding to Assad’s strategic benefit for as long as he needs it to.
It guarantees, moreover, that, if the UN steps further into the Syria quagmire – and that may well be next, if it seems like a good idea to, say, France, the EU, Saudi Arabia, etc. – Assad will have a seat at the table and be taken seriously in any negotiated resolutions.
A UN inspection proposal is leverage to legitimacy for Assad, changing the whole character of his dynamic with the rebels overnight. Yet it would be very hard for diehard rebel supporters like John McCain to complain effectively about it. The prospect of negotiating something seemingly concrete, rather than bombing weapon storehouses and air-defense sites for no good reason, will look very attractive to a lot of constituencies out there.
Sure, it will be whatever version of Czechoslovakia, 1938, you want to fit it into. A false “Peace in our time” moment; and there are other malign precedents we could invoke. The main thing it is, is Russia and Assad finding a way to trump the nations’ reflexive turn to the United States for leadership.
Make no mistake: the two of them will be in the driver’s seat of any “UN” activities in Syria. And there are plenty of other players whose greatest fear is of an Islamist takeover of Syria; Russia and Assad will have de facto support from them, because their continued ascendancy in Syria will prevent a Muslim Brotherhood coup there. It will also strengthen Russia’s hand in Syria at the expense of Iran’s. Iran is never more than an ally of convenience for Moscow, after all. Saudi Arabia and Jordan will naturally be amenable to more Russia and less Iran in Syria – just as other parties, especially in Southeastern Europe, will be pleased if undue Turkish influence is excluded from the outcome in Syria. Any Obama-led effort was always likely to give Turkey an outsize role.
The chemicals of August
On balance, it’s a narrow win for more than one interested party in the region. It’s a win for Obama, because he gets to put the looming prospect of a major foreign-policy failure in the “success” column instead – and that will give him a big boost in the agenda he really cares about: his domestic agenda. Only 24 hours ago, it seemed to be imperiled by the bad juju from the Syria mess. Now that’s changed. Now just let the House Republicans try to kick and squirm on Obamacare.
It won’t be enough for Obama’s most passionate supporters to see the brand snatched from the burning, however. Steel yourself for the new narrative of his preternatural strategic brilliance. It’s coming. (They’ve been preparing the way for it over at Slate.)
It won’t be long before the tables are turned on JFK, and his lame old Cuban missile business will become “Kennedy’s Syrian chemical weapons crisis.” We know Will Smith will play Obama in the movie Two Weeks in 2013, and Richard Dreyfuss will play McCain. But we can entertain ourselves speculating about who will play Kerry, Hagel, Power, Rice, and Jarrett.