When the world came dangerously close to nuclear war in the Cuban missile crisis, a key issue in resolving the confrontation was how to allow Khrushchev to back down. America’s concession was to remove nuclear weapons aimed at Russia from Italy and Turkey. On paper, this looks like a win-win (indeed, some historians think those armaments were the reason for Russia’s efforts to move missiles to Cuba in the first place). But the missile withdrawal from Italy and Turkey was a secret deal, so Khruschev was perceived to have come out a loser. He was ousted from power two years later in large measure because the resolution of this crisis was perceived to be a humiliation.
Fast forward to today. The Administration seems finally to have woken up to the fact that in trying to escalate in Syria, it has bitten off a ton more than it can chew. As Information Dissemination pointed out last week (hat tip Marcy Wheeler):
The arrogance of the Obama administration’s national security team is a parade of red flags right through the halls of Congress. Secretary Kerry actually argues that if Assad is “arrogant” enough to defend himself that the US and our allies have ways to make him regret that decision, apparently without going to war. The arrogance of John Kerry implies the question to Congress, what could possibly go wrong? With no political policy or strategy that can be articulated publicly, no military objective of consequence, no coalition of consequence or authority, and by taking action that injects our nation into another nations civil war uninvited – my question is, how does this possibly end well?
The Obama administration is taking greater risk with Syria than their calculations suggest, and I truly believe the potential for a significant strategic defeat like nothing seen in at least a century is greater than the potential for success. The entire gambit by the Obama administration rests upon the starting assumption that Syria will do nothing and give the Obama administration exactly what they want. The other starting assumption is that Iran won’t get involved or their involvement will be inconsequencial to our political objective….
If the Obama administration takes authorization from Congress and moves directly towards military action against Syria, the lack of a coalition is a significant condition that increases the strategic risk to the United States. Iran and Syria will recognize that this may be the only opportunity they will ever have to take on the United States without a broader coalition of support, and as such see this as their best opportunity to strike. In stepping through Red Team’s calculations, consider how exposed the US truly is.
1) The United States has no coalition, so a targeted, direct strike against the United States in “self defense” significantly limits the degree to which the international community will respond in support of the US…
2) The United States is strategically and politically exposed and military forces throughout the region are spread thin…Political cover by Russia and China will be available to Syria after the the US attacks.
3) Military objectives by Blue Team are not well defined, while military objectives by Red Team are well defined. All evidence suggests the leadership of the United States does not take seriously the threat of counterstrike. Russia has openly stated they will provide intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance to help Syria, and that presumably would also be for support of military action in counterstrike.
4) Successful counterstrike against the United States will be celebrated regionally, resulting in significant restrictions of movement within the region by US military forces and a collapse of US political credibility broadly. Local pressure can be exploited by red team on regional military installations to restrict movement of US assets in the region.
When I take the red team perspective of action unfolding in the Middle East, if I am Iran and Syria supported by Russia, my calculation is that I may never have a better opportunity to change the regional security conditions and balance of power in the Middle East than the opportunity being presented in this situation unfolding.
And the American public is simply not on board with this project. While the Administration tries to claim more Congressmen are coming around to its point of view, whip counts and public statements show otherwise. Absent a miracle, there is no way Obama can get the AUMF passed in the House. The recent line of thinking is Obama would go for Senate approval and skip the House. But as Jane Hamsher wrote yesterday:
Just for the heck of it I ran the numbers in the Senate with what we already know, plus the following assumptions:
1) Everyone running in 2014 who is not currently committed votes no (most have already declared that way)
2) Everyone who is retiring votes yes
3) Every Democrat who is not declared or not running, plus Bernie Sanders, votes yes, including those like Leahy who are currently leaning no
I get 52 yes votes.
Those are awfully charitable assumptions. No wonder Biden is having Republicans to dinner tonight….
The ratio of nay to yea votes has gone from 2:1 on 9/2 to nearly 4:1 today.
But despite the fact that taking the Syria saber-rattling forward looks like a complete loser domestically, there is the wee matter of US and in particular, Obama’s prestige to consider. Recall that the Pentagon Papers revealed that the US defense and intelligence communities had understood full well that America could not win in Vietnam, yet felt it could not withdraw for reasons of prestige.
The Wall Street Journal reports today that the US and Russia have agreed on a climb-down:
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Monday backed a demand by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that Syria put chemical weapons under international control and then destroy them, a rare sign of apparent agreement between Moscow and Washington…
Mr. Lavrov’s comments came hours after Mr. Kerry said Syria could prevent U.S. military action by handing over its chemical weapons to the international community, as President Barack Obama mounts an intensive campaign to promote a strike on Syria.
Agence France-Presse has tweeted that Damascus supports the proposal.
David Cameron, not surprisingly, is also on board.
While this is a very encouraging development, a sketchy proposal is a long way from a done deal. If the plan is merely to have Damascus hand over a big stockpile of chemical weapons (whether there is verification of how complete it is) for destruction and makes nice promises not to accumulate them again, it comes out a big winner. It’s not that much of a concession and negotiating with Assad reaffirms that he is recognized as the leader of the country. A potential sticking point is ongoing monitoring. On the nuclear weapons front, not complying with inspections is what has lead probable non-nuclear-weapons owner Iran to be demonized, while nuclear power Pakistan gets a free pass. Syria will almost certainly reject an ongoing verification requirement. The Journal account suggests not:
“We will be able to hold Bashar Assad accountable without engaging in troops on the ground or any other prolonged kind of effort in a very limited, very targeted, very short-term effort that degrades his capacity to deliver chemical weapons without assuming responsibility for Syria’s civil war,” he [Kerry] said.
In other words, the face-saving gambit is that the public destruction of a big stockpile with sufficient international fanfare will be taken as the sort of targeted response Obama promised. He will be able to pretend he lived up to his “red line” remark (which he could just as easily have wriggled out of as he has pretty much every promise he made to the beleaguered middle class).
If indeed this is all the US wants and gets, it looks as if the Administration finally woke up to how badly they need to get out of the corner Obama had painted himself in and found a way out. Let’s hope that the Administration does not get greedy and try to retrade this deal by adding conditions. They should be delighted to have found a way to declare peace with honor and move on.
Update 1:30 PM. No wonder Obama wants a deal. Independent of the geopolitical risk, his popularity ratings are taking a hit. Below are some of the results of a new poll conducted by Pew and USA Today, polling period September 4-8 (hat tip MS). The rising Congressional opposition reflects public attitudes hardening against military intervention:
Over just the past week, the share of Americans who oppose U.S. airstrikes in Syria has surged 15 points, from 48% to 63%, as many who were undecided about the issue have turned against military action. By contrast, the share of Americans who support airstrikes remains virtually unchanged: Just 28% favor U.S. military airstrikes against Syria in response to reports that its government used chemical weapons.
The new survey by the Pew Research Center and USA TODAY, conducted Sept. 4-8, 2013 among 1,506 adults nationwide, finds that this growing opposition to Syrian airstrikes is intense: 45% say they oppose airstrikes very strongly. That is roughly three-times the percentage (16%) that strongly favors airstrikes.
Republicans, in particular, have turned against Syrian airstrikes. A week ago, Republicans were divided about evenly: 35% favored and 40% opposed military airstrikes in response to the government’s alleged use of chemical weapons. Today, Republicans oppose airstrikes by an overwhelming 70% to 21% margin, with 51% saying they are strongly opposed.
And Congress is keeping the heat on. For instance, the Congressional Progressive Caucus sent 67 questions to Obama on Syria. Ouch.
Update 3:45 PM: Even as the White House is trying to walk back its previous remarks (as Antifa reminds us in comments, Kerry had issued an ultimatum, that Assad needed to give up his chemical weapons in a week or face an attack), the Senate is debating Syria. Mirabile dictu, Diane Feinstein is backing the Russian proposal.