From Putin With Love

Thanks to Mr. Putin, Washington has been given another chance to demonstrate the leadership that President Obama insists is America’s unique burden and responsibility.

President Obama is now in debt to his Russian counterpart. However vague the details of his proposal might be, Vladimir Putin has thrown the White House a lifeline; he has enabled Mr. Obama to dodge not one, but two bullets.

Without retreating from his self-inflicted “red line” statement, the president was able in his speech to the nation to threaten military action without committing to it. Without backing away from his ill-conceived and horribly researched plan to win Congressional support for such action, he also was able to defer a vote that was certain to result in a stinging defeat in the House and possibly in the Senate as well.

The president may yet have to seek Congressional support for military action, and may yet have to face the implications of taking such action if the Congress does not give him the permission he seeks. Moreover, despite his promise not to put “boots on the ground,” he has no way of guaranteeing that a strike that is more than a pinprick—“The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks”, he asserted—will have the kind of psychological impact on Bashar Assad that he seeks. Such a strike would be ‘an effects-based operation’ and these operations have had at best a mixed record of achieving their goals. ‘Shock and awe’ did not work in Iraq; it was followed by a vicious insurrection. Nor did Israel realize all its objectives in the Second Lebanon War, when its air force conducted its own version of effects-based operations. Such an operation may have little effect on Bashar Assad, who was already written off two years ago. His survival until now indicates that he will not depart easily, even if his forces are “degraded” by American air strikes.

President Obama downplayed possible Syrian reactions on the battlefield to an American attack; instead he focused on retaliation against the United States. Assad may choose to ignore the American action, much as he ignored the Israeli strike on his nuclear facility in 2007. After all, the president reiterated in his speech that not only would there be no American boots on the ground, but that America “cannot resolve someone else’s civil war through force.” Assad’s objective is to defeat the rebels, not to ratchet up a confrontation with Washington.

Indeed, just as Mr. Obama did not discuss the range of Syrian responses to an attack, he did not outline the circumstances in which he might obtain a UN Security Council resolution supporting American action. For that matter, he had little to say about how he proposed to win the support of more than just the handful of allies who publicly back a strike. Most importantly, he did not explain how America would avoid the slippery slope of becoming involved in a prolonged Syrian operation, particularly if Assad continued to employ chemical weapons in spite of America’s best efforts to eliminate them.

It was therefore wise of the president to latch onto the straw that the Russians offered him, though they have already begun to backtrack. Moscow now wants Washington to commit to not carrying out military operations. Nevertheless, by publicly welcoming Putin’s proposal, Obama has created an opportunity for the Russian president to play the major international role he has continually sought; indeed, should his plan succeed, a Nobel Peace Prize could be in the offing (if Yasir Arafat could win the prize, why not Putin?). On the other hand, if the diplomatic effort were to fail because Assad, having agreed to international control of his chemical weapons, reverted to his usual practice of breaking promises almost as soon as he makes them, Obama will have placed Putin in the uncomfortable position of having to accept the need for a military strike against the Syrian government’s forces.

Having worked his way out of a tight political vise, at least for the moment, the president should concentrate on achieving the diplomatic solution he professes to seek. Should the Russian-initiated effort fail, the White House will have good reason to expect both Congressional approval and broad international support for a military strike.

Over the past two years, American policy on Syria has been hesitant at best, and incompetent at worst. Thanks to Mr. Putin, Washington has been given another chance to demonstrate the leadership that President Obama insists is America’s unique burden and responsibility. The White House should make the most of this second chance. It is unlikely to be handed a third.

Dov Zakheim served as the undersecretary of defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the U.S. Department of Defense from 2001–2004 and as the deputy undersecretary of defense (planning and resources) from 1985-1987. He also served as DoD's civilian coordinator for Afghan reconstruction from 2002–2004. He is a member of The National Interest's advisory council.