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The Right’s Sickening Syria Spin

The Syria arms deal struck between the U.S. and Russia isn’t perfect, but hardly anything in.

NBC NewsWire/Getty,NBC NewsWire

I don’t know about you, but I’m not very interested in being lectured that Bashar al-Assad has no real intention of giving up his chemical weapons by the very same people who a decade ago were pushing this country into war—and having the deranged gall to call the rest of us unpatriotic—on the argument that there was no possible way a monster like Saddam Hussein had given up his chemical weapons. Barack Obama has been forced to spend about 70 percent of his presidential energies trying to repair crises foreign and domestic that these people created, and forced to do so against their iron opposition on all fronts; and now that he’s achieved a diplomatic breakthrough, they have the audacity to argue that he sold America out to Vladimir Putin? It’s staggering and sickening.

But here was Newt Gingrich on television yesterday: “You have Putin playing chess and Obama playing, frankly, a very lucky game of tic-tac-toe. Putin stepped in to maximize Russian influence in the Middle East. That is a strategic defeat for the United States.” What Gingrich is still even doing on television is the first mystery, perhaps solvable by consulting Nostradamus or some ancient Mayan codex; but there he was puffing and huffing, playing with the phrase made famous back during the Libyan adventure by saying Obama was now “following from behind.”

On another network, there was John McCain (are these shows just going to end when he retires?) asserting that the deal was empty because the Russians “will not agree to the use of force no matter what” Assad does, which my colleague Christopher Dickey wrote yesterday is not in this fact the case.

Of course, it might end up being true—indeed it will almost certainly end up being true—that the deal cannot be fully and perfectly enforced. To point that out is to belabor the obvious. But the real questions are two. The first doesn’t concern Assad at all but is rather: can the deal be enforced well enough that these weapons are kept out of the hands of the al Qaeda–affiliated fighters in the region and other extremist groups? We don’t know the answer today, obviously. But surely the presence of international monitors, and the stern timeline of the deal, make it less possible.

The second question concerns Assad. Conservatives are now asserting that this deal means Assad has gotten away with it; that he used chemical weapons and will now pay no price. What does that even mean? If he even partly or mostly honors the terms of the deal, he’s paid a price. I suppose the critics really mean that Assad paid no military price, and strictly speaking that’s true. But do these critics really think Assad is sitting in Damascus laughing? He was afraid the world’s largest and best military was going to bomb him. And I’d bet he knows all too clearly that if he uses them again, he will be bombed. If Assad is mad enough to use them again, Obama won’t mess with Congress or even Russia. He’ll be credited by most observers—except America’s enemies and the Republican Party; food for thought there—for having shown restraint the first time, and more people will agree at that point that Assad must be punished.

The Kerry-Lavrov deal is surely an imperfect outcome. But it is also by a considerable distance the least bad outcome attainable. And the conservative arguments against it don’t stand up to real-world analysis.

Obama strengthened Putin? Maybe, for now. But who else were we supposed to deal with? Russia is Syria’s protector state and the only leverage point in.

Obama showed weakness in talking about bombing and then not doing it? Well, two thirds of the American people were firmly against it. A president is supposed to ignore that? I know Dick Cheney thought so. You might recall the time in March 2008 Martha Raddatz asked him about a poll showing two thirds of the public saying the Iraq war wasn’t worth it, and he snapped: “So?” Obama feels differently. It’s pretty clear which of those is the more democratically mature view.

Obama should never have gone to Congress? This is one of those can’t-win-either-way situations. If he’d bombed without going to Congress, they’d be drawing up articles of impeachment right now in the House.

Obama looked hopelessly weak? Sure, the policy has been confused. But at the end of the day, the threat of force obviously made a difference. If President Bush or McCain or Romney had behaved exactly as Obama did over this past week, the same conservatives now warning that the world is about to be taken over by Russia and Iran would be hailing the greatest demonstration of presidential cojones since Jack Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis.

Assad is still in power? Yes, he is. And sadly, there just isn’t much we can do about that. I have written columns imploring American liberals to drop the automatic anti-militarism and heed the plight and worldview of the small-d democrats of Syria and the entire region who want America’s help against dictators. I mean this. We should do what we can to show these people that we are on their side. And Obama frankly hasn’t been very good on this—too much big talk.

But there are limits in the real world to what America can do, especially with public opinion the way it is right now. I like the idea of offering more support to the moderate rebels. But then I start thinking, first “advisers,” then what? I have argued that every conflict doesn’t turn into Iraq or Vietnam. But this process of little steps is exactly how Vietnam did start. Neither Eisenhower nor Kennedy ever imagined boots on the ground there, but both made decisions that started us down that road. Given the combustibility of the neighborhood, the Syrian civil war really could become World War III.

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What Obama has screwed up on Syria is process stuff. He’s changed his mind. That’s unforgivable, in the Washington Village. It shows no “resolve.” Well, Bush showed resolve. I’ll give him that. And as he dragged us into a full-out war premised on lies that were crafted to shift an originally skeptical public sentiment in his favor, the pundits largely applauded. Obama has spoken honestly to the American people, obeyed their strong majority view, and secured a deal that for the moment represents the outer limits of the possibility of doing good in Syria. The brickbats thrown by the very people who turned the world against us are not only hard to take seriously, they’re a moral offense.