Fund Your Utopia Without Me.™

10 September 2013

Obama Got Played by Putin and Assad

By Julia Ioffe, The New Republic

This, apparently, is how diplomacy happens these days: Someone makes an off-hand remark at a press conference and triggers an international chain reaction that turns an already chaotic and complex situation completely on its head, and gives everyone a sense that, perhaps, this is the light at the end of the indecision tunnel.

Speaking in London next to British Foreign Secretary William Hague on Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry said that perhaps the military strike around which the administration has been painfully circling for weeks could be avoided if Bashar al-Assad can "turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that.”

 The fact that Kerry immediately followed with, “But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously,” didn't seem to bother anyone. (Probably because they were focusing on his other slip-up: calling the promised strikes "unbelievably small.")
The Russians immediately jumped on the impromptu proposal, calling Kerry to check if he was serious before going live with their proposal to lean on Syria. An hour later, they trotted out Syria's foreign minister, Walid al-Mouallem, who said he too was down with the proposal, which was a strange way to get the Syrians to finally admit they even had chemical weapons to begin with. Before long, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, the English, and the French were all on board, too.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, the White House was just as surprised as anyone. Asked if this was a White House plan that Kerry had served up in London, Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken was unequivocal. "No, no, no," he said. "We literally just heard about this as you did some hours ago."

So that's good. At least everyone's on the same page.

While the Russians are already cutting deals and drumming up promises from the Syrians—with whom, as they've insisted for years, they have no leverage—and as the world lines up on the off-ramp, the White House was still marshalling its case for a military strike, trotting out National Security Advisor Susan Rice, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and poor Tony Blinken, who was left making the case for two mutually exclusive things: "We'll talk to the Russians," he kept repeating even as he hammered on the intelligence and the need to degrade, deter, et cetera, et cetera. 

Last night, President Barack Obama, who, just over a week ago, had said he was ready to act, tells the nation's cable watchers that he's now discussing this bogus plan with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and that he's "going to take this very seriously" while also not letting up on the drumbeat of military strikes while. On Tuesday, Syria said it had accepted Russia's proposal and France said it would seek the UN Security Council's backing for the proposal.

This, in other words, is no light at the end of the tunnel. This, to borrow a phrase from a Congressional staffer at his wits' end, "IS AN UNMITIGATED CLUSTERFUCK."

What happened was Kerry went off message and, as has been his wont as Secretary of State, off the reservation, and violated the cardinal rule of official press conferences: He answered a hypothetical question in a hypothetical way. He blurted out a pie-in-the-sky, hyperbolic idea—getting rid of "every single bit" of the chemical weapons scattered across Syria "in the next week"—but everyone seized on it as a realistic proposal. It's not.

First, how do you deal with a regime that only admits it has chemical weapons under the threat of impending military intervention? Or that uses chemical weapons while a team of U.N. inspectors is there to investigate the prior use of chemical weapons, in the same city?

Second, that handful of chemical weapons storage and mixing facilities are just the ones we know about, and, now that the U.S. has been loudly beating the war drum for weeks, Assad has been moving his troops and weapons around. If we thought getting to "beyond a reasonable doubt" with the intelligence on the August 21 chemical attack was hard, imagine us getting to "every single bit."

Third, negotiating with the Russians and the Syrians about what "every single bit" and what disposing them mean will certainly take more than "the next week." Both Moscow and Damascus have all the time in the world, and the Kremlin, which has never met a legal norm it couldn't waltz around, will quibble and hair-split and insist that this is all done legally—whatever that means in Moscow.

Fourth, the mechanics of disposing these chemical weapons are far from straightforward. Quoth the Times: "flying [the chemical weapons] out of the country is not as simple as picking up nuclear components—as the United States did in Libya in late 2003—and moving them to a well-guarded site in Tennessee."

Fifth, and most important, is the fact that Assad giving up his chemical weapons was only part of the stated objective. If you listened to the White House pitch closely, the point of the military strike was not just to stop Assad from using chemical weapons further on his citizens, and it was not just to warn other rogue leaders with their fingers on various triggers. Part of the goal was to force a political solution that would remove Assad from power. That is, even though the Obama administration has been insisting that it is not interested in "regime change," that disastrous cornerstone of the Bush era, it was, in fact, pursuing regime change, at least until Monday.

On August 21, just hours after the sarin attack in Ghouta, a Damascus suburb, had occurred, Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest spoke of the failure of international pressure to achieve a key administration goal: "We've seen evidence and indications that the Assad regime is feeling that pressure, but you're right that we have not—that it has not resulted in the outcome that we would like to see, which is Assad being completely removed from power," Earnest said. "That’s not just the preference of the United States of America, that’s the will of the Syrian people and that’s why it's important." This was what Senator John McCain managed to pry from General Martin Dempsey during the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last week, that the goal of a military strike was "to change the military equation on the battlefield," and what he worked into the committee's resolution to authorize the use of force in Syria. This, the administration has insisted, was what made the military option so important: creating the opening for a diplomatic solution. 

Well, on Monday, the administration argued, correctly, that the threat of a strike has done just that. "I don't think we would have gotten to this point unless we had maintained a credible possibility for a military strike," Obama said in an interview with ABC, adding, "and I don't think now is the time for us to let up on that." But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has already scrapped the vote on the authorization of the use of force. And, given how bleak the vote count was looking pre-Kerry gaffe, and given how audible the sigh of relief from the Hill was, it's clear to everyone that the jig is up. Now that there's a semblance of a diplomatic option, the military option has evaporated. "The momentum is moving against us," said one Senate staffer. "We’re on track to lose this thing. Our folks are dropping like flies." 

There are two clear winners in this slow-motion train wreck, and they are not Obama or Kerry. They are Assad and Putin. Both wanted, for their own reasons, to avert a military strike, and a military strike was averted. Putin insisted on a diplomatic solution while doing everything to make a diplomatic solution impossible, and now he gets his phony, unenforceable diplomatic solution. Assad wanted to go on killing his opposition, and he will continue to do so.

Obama, on the other hand, found himself constantly check-mated, either by his own hand, or, this time, by Kerry's. First, he drew a red line on chemical weapons, seemingly by accident. Then, he all but ignored chemical weapons use by Assad until the evidence forced itself on the world. Then he agonized on whether to act, while Dempsey and the Pentagon rolled him, leaking their military plans to anyone who would listen, "probably," said one insider, "because they didn't want to act." Then, he talked about how limited the strikes would be, all while Assad moved his men and his guns into residential areas and the Russians moved their ships in. Then, out of nowhere, he decided to take it to Congress. "The president says that he’s going to launch strikes and then, suddenly, he’s going to Congress. It's probably one of the more incredible things I’ve ever seen," McCain told me. "We were all dumbfounded," said another Senate staffer. 

Then came the persuasion of Congress, a legislative body that can't even pass a farm bill, or a gun-control measure favored by a crushing majority of the American people. The president didn't call Congress back, so instead, congressmen and senators got spend nearly two weeks marinating not in the intelligence, but in the vehement opposition of their constituents. Those that were in town—like the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—were rushed through the process of putting together a resolution before they even heard the classified briefing. Others, relative moderates like Republicans Saxby Chambliss and Kelly Ayotte who would normally support such a measure, complained that the briefings were vague and short on specifics. 

Obama, meanwhile, took off for Sweden, and, as the town halls roiled with anger, put off his address to the country for the following week. While abroad, he managed to further humiliate himself in the eyes of Putin, who already sees him as weak. Obama, having just called off his bilateral summit with Putin because Russia granted asylum to Edward Snowden, went ahead and met with Putin anyway. It was a pointless meeting—"We both stuck to our guns," Putin said afterwards—but in Russia, the message was unmistakable: Putin is stronger, and Putin won. 

Meanwhile, back home, the nays fell into place and the yeahs became fewer and fewer, and the talk in Washington was about what Obama will do if Congress says no? Or if the Senate says yes but the House says no? And just when it couldn't get any more discombobulated, Kerry opened the door to a nonsense Russian diplomatic solution, just three days after Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said publicly it would be naive to count on Russia diplomatically.

As it stands now, Russia and France have taken the lead on working out a plan to get Assad to hand over his chemical weapons, a lead Obama seems all too happy to relinquish. Hammering out the details will take a some time, and, while they're at it, Assad will still have his chemical weapons but will no longer be under the threat of a U.S. military strike. (Who knows if he'll use them, but he certainly hasn't let up on the conventional shelling.) Putin has succeeded in throwing sand in the gears of the American political process and separating the U.S. from its allies, and the current American handwringing over Syria seems likely to grind on for weeks. And a pro-Assad paper ran with the following headline this morning: 

'Moscow and Damascus Pull the Rug Out From Under the Feet of Obama.'

Meanwhile, the president is supposed to address the nation tonight. He was supposed to make the case for military action, but his advisors spent Monday night frantically reworking the speech. What will he say? What can he say?

But, suffer not ye little children!  The Obama administration is quickly growing après la bataille gonads as they rewrite history...

BuzzFeed:  Administration Changes Russian Proposal’s Origin Story:  Back-dating a policy.

By Rosie Gray

The Obama Administration’s explanation of how a Russian proposal to get rid of Syrian chemical weapons came to be has morphed rapidly in the past 24 hours from being portrayed as an unexpected slip-up to — in its new incarnation — a plan that U.S. officials were involved in as early as last week.

“I had some conversations about this with my counterpart from Russia last week,” Secretary of State John Kerry said during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday, referring to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. “President Putin raised the issue with President Obama at St. Petersburg. President Obama directed us to try to continue to talk and see if it is possible. So it is not something that — you know, suddenly emerged, though it did publicly. But it cannot be allowed to be a delay.”

Later, under questioning by Rep. Hank Johnson, Kerry said he had not made a mistake when he suggested the proposal in a press conference in London on Monday.

“I didn’t misspeak,” Kerry said. “I was asked about it. I responded because I was asked.”

A State Department official confirmed to BuzzFeed that Kerry and Lavrov had spoken about getting rid of Assad’s chemical weapons stockpiles last week.

“He has been talking with the Russians about importance of securing chemical weapons back to his trip to Moscow and before,” the official said. “That is what he was talking about.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin mentioned the Kerry-Lavrov discussions in a speech on Tuesday, saying he had instructed the two diplomats to “get in touch” and “try to move this idea forward” and that he and Obama had “indeed discussed” the idea on the sidelines of the G-20.

The administration has quickly changed its line on an idea that it scrambled to play down yesterday in the White House and State Department briefings even as the Russians immediately followed up by making the proposal to the Syrians, who “welcomed” it.

Kerry “was making a rhetorical statement about a scenario that we find highly unlikely,” State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf told reporters yesterday.

Harf said the administration would “take a hard look” at the proposal but that “we have serious and deep skepticism that the Syrian regime would actually do this.” She presented the plan as purely a Russian proposal, saying that “the Secretary was not making a proposal.”

Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken echoed Harf in the White House briefing on Monday, telling reporters that “I believe [Kerry] was answering questions, speaking hypothetically about what if Assad were to do this.”

A senior administration official even described Kerry’s statement as a “major goof” to CNN.

The administration’s tone changed abruptly Monday night, with President Obama himself throwing his weight behind the idea in a series of television interviews.

“It’s certainly a positive development when the Russians and Syrians both make gestures towards dealing with these chemical weapons,” Obama said, while cautioning that the plan will only make sense if it is “real.”

The shift comes as support for the administration’s Syria war plan dwindles on Capitol Hill, and as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has delayed a plan test vote on Wednesday to see whether the Russian plan will work out. And a plan that yesterday looked like a slip of the tongue is now being fed into the international policy machine, as Obama has agreed to a United Nations discussion and potential U.N. Security Council resolution — bringing the Syria issue back to the international community the administration wanted to bypass.

More BuzzFeed:

President Obama’s 9 Key Blunders Of The Syria Conflict So Far:  Rough road to Damascus. 

1. The Syrian Track

The Syrian Track
When President Obama first came to office in 2009 he — and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — hoped that what one State Department official called the “Syrian-Israeli track” would open a door to peace in the Middle East. It may not have been a crazy idea — but it never went anywhere. 

2. Ignoring Syria

Ignoring Syria
As the “Arab Spring” spread and protesters sought to unseat President Bashar al-Assad, the Obama Administration had tough words, but little action. “President Obama’s reluctance to engage in Syria has been understandable. Perhaps he now understands that disengagement also has consequences, many of them unintended,” his former top Syria aide, Fred Hof, wrote recently. 

3. Mixed Messages To The Syrian Rebels

Mixed Messages To The Syrian Rebels
The US promised weapons and support — and repeatedly hinted at more. They even sent weapons, indirectly, to some rebel groups. But the talk may have done more harm than good, fueling Assad’s attacks without ever providing enough arms to turn the tide of war. 

4. Drawing the 'Red Line'

Drawing the "Red Line"
“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation,” the president said on August 20, 2012. But there appears to have been no clear plan to enforce that line amid growing evidence of some chemical weapons use in Syria. 

5. A Promise of Consequences

A Promise of Consequences
Secretary of State John Kerry blamed the Syrian government for the “moral obscenity” of chemical attacks — and promised that “President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people.” So far, there hasn’t been any. 

6. Not Confident Enough For War?

Not Confident Enough For War?

The Administration — operating in the shadow of the Bush Administration’s misleading case for the Iraq war — at times appeared to lack confidence in its case that Assad’s regime was behind the chemical weapons strikes, as in this intelligence assessment released on August 30. 

7. An Abrupt Detour To Congress

An Abrupt Detour To Congress
President Obama’s decision to put strikes on Syria to a vote won broad praise from Capitol Hill — but nobody pretended it had been part of anything resembling a plan. 

8. Gaffe Central

Gaffe Central
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s testimony to sell the war was widely panned, and privately credited with pushing at least one Senator into opposition. Secretary of State John Kerry, meanwhile, had to walk back a suggestion that he’d send American soldiers to Syria. 

9. The Winner

The Winner
The White House engaged in a years-long standoff with Russian President Vladimir Putin over how to deal with Syria — then played straight into his hands, making Assad’s key patron look both relevant and responsible.

About those gonads...

– Vladimir Putin, 10 September 2013 


‘Assad must go further than giving up his chemical weapons.’ 

– John Kerry, 10 September 2013

How did Putin react to the new bluster from Kerry, who is claiming that his gaffeplomacy wasn't really gaffeplomacy?

He has cancelled the 4PM UN Security Council meeting pending a promise from the administration that it is taking the threat to use military force against Assad off the table, of course.

What was supposed to be on the menu at this meeting?

The Russians' Syria Initiative!!! 

The Security Council was to debate Russia's proposal concerning Assad's chemical weapons.

And, guess what?

The Russians have withdrawn their proposal, even more 'OF COURSE!'


Syria Crisis: The Great Gamble

No comments: