Go, Diplomacy!

Getting Behind the Russia Plan

Whatever Russia's motivation, the diplomatic plan for Syria is the one to get behind.

My biggest question about what is evidently being called (slightly unfairly to John Kerry) the “Russia Plan” is this: What’s Russia’s motivation for suddenly being peacemaker here? Putin hates Obama, hates America, and has thrown about two tons of sand in the gears of the U.S.-Rossiya relationship since he got back into power. So why would he want to pull Obama’s chestnuts out of the fire?

I’m not sure, but I think it’s basically for the same reason that the guy on the other side of those double-yellow lines on the road doesn’t suddenly swerve in front of you. He may be an asshole. He may beat his wife. If you met him in a bar, he might be all likkered up and decide he wants to kick your pasty, yuppie ass just for the hell of it.

But he doesn’t want to die, or wreck his own vehicle. I think this must be kind of like that. Lavrov and Putin may fear U.S. military strikes not because they fear America per se, but because they recognize that American strikes could possibly set in train a series of events that might draw Russia deeper into Syria; it might drag Russia across the double-yellow line. Lavrov, evidently, kind of likes Kerry (another way to put that is that he seems to not have liked Hillary Clinton; sexism as a factor there might not be the most shocking thing in the world).

So now, everything is moving forward on this, apparently. France is placing a resolution before the Security Council. Russia and China say they’ll back it. Cameron spoke well of the plan. That leaves Obama. Leaks will probably start flowing sometime today in advance of his big speech, and he’ll surely address the issue head-on tonight. And he’ll surely endorse it. Tentatively, or sternly, or circumspectly; as a negotiating posture, he can’t do a dance. But he might be dancing on the inside.

Why? Poll numbers like these, out from the Times this morning. Six in 10 don’t want even air strikes in Syria. Fully 72 percent think the U.S. should not try to turn dictatorships into democracies. And 62 percent say the United States should no longer try to “play a leading role” in resolving world conflicts, against just 34 percent who support the traditional post-war position.

People have learned the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan. But I’d say (looking especially at that last result) that they’ve over-learned them. People aren’t thinking about the consequences of the United States playing no role, in essence handing the region over to Iran. But right now, after all those Bush promises and failures (yes, Bush!), America’s head hurts even thinking about this stuff.

I also learned yesterday that the vote is even in trouble in the Senate. I said from day one I didn’t think it would pass the House. But the Democratically controlled Senate? With a number of conservative foreign-policy hawks? I think I predicted around 62 votes.

Well, it’s a lot closer than that right now. A lot. Here’s an excellent and up-to-date rundown by Aaron Blake and Sean Sullivan in The Washington Post. Essentially, Obama needs 16 of the 27 undecided Democrats. As they note, that sounds on its face like it shouldn’t be a heavy lift. But: Six are from the liberal wing; three are red-staters up for reelection next year; two others are testing the presidential waters. Those are all circumstances that would argue for no votes, and those numbers add up to 11, which is more defections than Obama can probably afford.

I don’t buy the conventional wisdom that if the House votes against Obama it’s some kind of devastating blow to his presidency. The House would vote against Obama if he cured cancer and placed it before them in legislative form. But if the Senate were to vote no, that really would be a political problem for him.

So you bet he wants a diplomatic solution. And yes, longtime readers who think I've suddenly morphed into John McCain: I'm for it too, very much so.