By Peggy Noonan
This is what I think we’re seeing:
The president has backed away from a military strike in Syria. But he can’t acknowledge this or act as if it is true. He is acting and talking as if he’s coolly, analytically, even warily contemplating the Russian proposal and the Syrian response. The proposal, he must know, is absurd. Bashar Assad isn’t going to give up all his hidden weapons in wartime, in the middle of a conflict so bitter and severe that his forces this morning reportedly bombed parts of Damascus, the city in which he lives. In such conditions his weapons could not be fully accounted for, packed up, transported or relinquished, even if he wanted to. But it will take time—weeks, months—for the absurdity to become obvious. And it is time the president wants. Because with time, with a series of statements, negotiations, ultimatums, promises and proposals, the Syria crisis can pass. It can dissipate into the air, like gas.
The president will keep the possibility of force on the table, but really he’s lunging for a lifeline he was lucky to be thrown.
Why is he backing off? Because he knows he doesn’t have the American people and isn’t going to get them. The polls, embarrassingly, show the more people hear the less they support it. The president’s problem with his own base was probably startling to him, and sobering. He knows he was going to lose Congress, not only the House but very possibly—likely, I’d say—the Senate. The momentum was all against him. And he never solved—it was not solvable—his own Goldilocks problem: A strike too small is an embarrassment, a strike too big could topple the Assad regime and leave Obama responsible for a complete and cutthroat civil war involving terrorists, foreign operatives, nihilists, jihadists, underemployed young men, and some really nice, smart people. Obama didn’t want to own that, or the fires that could engulf the region once Syria went up.
His plan was never good. The choices were never good. In any case he was going to lose either in terms of domestic prestige, the foreign result or both. Likely both.
He got himself into it and now Vladimir Putin, who opposes U.S. policy in Syria and repeatedly opposed a strike, is getting him out. This would be coldly satisfying for Putin and no doubt personally galling for Obama—another reason he can’t look as if he’s lunging.
A serious foreign-policy intellectual said recently that Putin’s problem is that he’s a Russian leader in search of a Nixon, a U.S. president he can really negotiate with, a stone player who can talk grand strategy and the needs of his nation, someone with whom he can thrash it through and work it out. Instead he has Obama, a self-besotted charismatic who can’t tell the difference between showbiz and strategy, and who enjoys unburdening himself of moral insights to his peers.
But Putin has no reason to want a Syrian conflagration. He is perhaps amused to have a stray comment by John Kerry be the basis for a resolution of the crisis. The hidden rebuke: It means that when Putin met with Obama at the G-20 last week Obama, due to his lack of competence, got nothing. But a stray comment by the Secretary of State? Sure, why not rub Obama’s face in it.