Yesterday, we put up a post on the subject of who won and lost as a result of Obama being cornered into taking up a Russian proposal to destroy Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons rather than launch punitive attacks. A Beltway insider weighted in via e-mail with some pointed remarks:
It’s not clear what will happen with this Syria fiasco. It could mean wide-scale war, and it could mean a Syria free of chemical weapons and on the road to a peaceful resolution of the civil war. Obama has still claimed authority to do whatever he wants, so it’s too early to say that strikes on Syria are being ruled out. However, the President has been severely constrained, and a bombing that was a sure thing a week ago will now be delayed several weeks while Congress debates and Putin proposes peace overtures that sound eminently reasonable if you assume he isn’t operating in utter bad faith (a big assumption, but perhaps not a good one – Putin has his reasons for not wanting chemical weapons in Syria).
Domestically, this has been a bad three week stretch for the administration. It could change, and will, but right now, here’s where things seem to be playing out.
Mild loser: Obama
If he adopts the Putin peace plan, he doesn’t look that bad. His approvals have taken a hit, but he restores the Constitutional system, gets rid of Syrian chemical weapons, accidentally rejuvenates multilateralism, and can get his base back. Not too shabby, actually, as long as he learns to say Yes. Politically, it could be like the Bay of Pigs, without the fiasco. That hurt JFK politically, but not too badly. Obama could even use this as an opportunity to clean house within his administration, which he probably won’t. This could turn into a much uglier situation for the President, if he refuses to back down or learn from his mistakes.
Biggest Loser: John Kerry
It’s hard to describe what a clusterfuck John Kerry has been as Secretary of State. The Bush administration was terrible and sucked at nearly everything, but they knew how to roll out a war. Kerry has been a bumbling moron at PR, at intelligence, at diplomacy, and at Congressional relations. It seems like every time he opens his mouth he makes the case that the US doesn’t know what it is doing and it should stay out of Syria. And that’s not all – he’s also been publicly overruled by his boss. Most people in DC, after watching these past two weeks, are saying “thank God he was never President”. You can survive a lot in DC, but you can’t survive becoming a laughingstock. Obama doesn’t really have a lot of loyalty to Kerry, so he could be gone after the Syria situation settles down.
Other losers: Samantha Power, Susan Rice, liberal interventionists
The “I feel guilty for Rwanda” school of soft-headed true believers have been embarrassed over Syria. UN Ambassador Samantha Power was seen as dismissing the ability to do anything with diplomacy just before Putin sandbagged her and Kerry with a deal offering everything the US purportedly wants. It turns out the liberal interventionists are just as cowboy-like as the Bush crowd, but they somehow managed to seem dumber and more self-righteous about it.
This discussion raises the question: why does Kerry still have a job? He’s managed not just making Hillary Clinton look good, but also the astonishing feat of making Bush look attractive in retrospect. I’ve heard more than one remark along the lines of, “Wow, did we dodge a bullet in 2004.”
Now of course, the sensible might say, “Obama can’t fire Kerry now. He’s in the middle of a Big Deal!”
But as Clemenceau and later De Gaulle remarked, “The graveyards are full of indispensable men.” If Kerry dropped dead, the Administration would figure out a way, pronto, to keep Syria and other urgent matters on course. So the idea that Kerry couldn’t be replaced is misguided. From a managerial standpoint, it clearly could be done. The real issue is the cost versus the benefits.
On the negative side of the ledger, getting rid of Kerry now or anytime soon could increase the perception of an Administration in disarray. It would also increase focus on Syria, when given what a loser the war effort has become, Obama would probably prefer to direct media attention elsewhere.
But on the plus side, replacing Kerry would improve relations with Congress and likely with the rest of the world (it’s hard to imagine he has much credibility overseas). If handled well, it would also allow Obama to shift blame for Syria saber-rattling to Kerry and look like a tough-minded executive willing to make difficult decisions for the good of the cause.
And there are ways of firing Kerry without really firing him, the bureaucratic equivalent of the Japanese practice of putting unwanted workers in a room with nothing to do. Obama could signal a change in course without the disruption or controversy of jettisoning his failed Secretary of State by, say, putting a special envoy in charge of dealing with the UN on the Syrian chemical weapons disarmament program. Kerry would still be kept in the loop but would be treated as at most an advisor and occasional (and well scripted) spokesperson on this initiative.
But I suspect that nothing will change on the personnel front, and for the same reason that Obama never got rid of Geithner despite similar calls for his ouster. As with Geithner, Kerry looks to have been doing what Obama wanted. There has been a school that was trying to defend Obama’s plans to attack Syria as having been hoist on the petard of his “red line” remarks. Obama debunked that with his speech last night. The possibility of a diplomatic solution and his inability to get the voted to pass the AUMF each gave him a gracious and easy way to shift his stance. But Obama continued to sell war, now with the not-too-subtle subtext that those who weren’t with him were the moral equivalent of Nazi collaborators. This from the leader of nation that has recently used and still supplies other countries with chemical weapons.
So expect Kerry and the hawks to stay firmly in place. Obama’s failure to remove or shift responsibilities away from Kerry will hurt Obama, but sadly, it will likely damage a lot of people even more. Kerry’s heart is almost certainly not in the peace initiative, and even if it were, he lacks the skills and credibility to carry it forward even if he had a Damascene conversion. I’d love to be proven wrong, but Kerry is shaping up to be the man to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.