How does a foreign policy crisis move from mere debacle to absolute disaster in the matter of a few hours? Just ask Team Obama.
Over a 12-hour span on Monday, the administration essentially ceded control of the Syria situation to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the regime in Damascus. And the speed at which the transition occurred was simply stunning. To be fair, President Obama's national security advisers are the weakest and most inept in 50 years. But even by their low standards, the surrender on Syria was nothing less than jaw-dropping. And here is how it happened.
The day began with Secretary of State John Forbes Kerry (in case you haven't heard, he served in Vietnam), trying to rally support for a military strike against Syria from the Arab League. By most accounts, things were going well--or reasonably well, considering the corner Mr. Obama had painted himself into. Sources indicated that Saudi Arabia and the other oil-rich kingdoms of the Persian Gulf would underwrite the cost of a U.S. campaign. There is little love for Bashir Assad in places like Riyadh, Doha and Abu Dhabi, so the sheiks were willing to underwrite a potential U.S. strike, and push the dictator a few steps closer to oblivion.
Then, Mr. Kerry opened his mouth. Trying to assure his audience that an American attack wouldn't become an all-out war, he described the planned strike as "unbelieveably small." You could almost hear the cheers from Damascus. Then, just a few minutes later, he suggested a strike might be averted if Mr. Assad gave up his chemical weapons arsenal.
That certainly got the attention of Vladimir Putin. In near-record time, the Russian leader agreed to lead efforts to put Syria's WMD arsenal under "international" control. Stunned by Kerry's blunder--and Putin's clever exploitation--President Obama initially tried to "walk back" the remarks of his Secretary of State. But a few hours later, he gave up on that futile effort and "welcomed" the diplomatic initiative in a series of TV interviews.
Now, some 24 hours later, the Obama Crew is in full spin mode, hailing the original gaffe as a genuine "breakthrough." And many of the stenographers in the mainsteam press are more than happy to echo that narrative.
But wait just a minute. What exactly have Mr. Obama and his advisers agreed to?
Let's start with the notion of the "international community" gaining control of Assad's chemical weapons inventory. Remember the various organizations charged with finding Saddam's WMD in Iraq, or tracking down the Iranian nuclear program? Describing them as less-than-successful would be charitable, at best. There is virtually no guarantee than any of them would have more luck in Syria.
And of course, we can certainly trust Vladimir Putin. After all, Syria has been Moscow's chief client state in the Middle East for more than 30 years and its' a fair bet that Russian WMD technology has "assisted" Damascus's development of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Does anyone really expect Putin to come clean about his nation's role in the Syrian chem program, or pressure Assad into full disclosure? Beyond that, what does Putin expect in return? A free hand in making deals with Iran? The end of U.S. missile defense? Far greater cuts in our nuclear arsenal while Moscow modernizes? All the above?
There's also the matter of what the Syrian dictator gains by giving up his WMD program--except cancellation of a U.S. attack. Chemical, biological and even nuclear weapons are one of Assad's ultimate guarantors of his regime. Without them, the imbalance of power between Syria and its powerful neighbors (Israel and Turkey) becomes even more pronounced, and will certainly influence their strategic thinking. The lack of WMD will also weaken Assad's hand in the on-going civil war.
In other words, Bashir Assad has plenty of reasons to play the shell game perfected over the past 20 years by North Korea and Iran, among others. Syria will make a show of allowing inspectors into a few sites and even turn over a few weapons. But it's a safe bet that much of Syria's WMD will remain hidden, if not at secret sites inside its borders, then at bunkers in other countries.
Lest we forget, the current Director of National Intelligence, (Ret) General James Clapper opined famously in 2003 that much of Saddam's arsenal was moved to Syria, before the U.S. invasion. Similar claims were made in a book by the former chief of the Iraqi Air Force. It wouldn't be hard for Moscow and Tehran to airlift Syrian chem and bio warheads in Iran, beyond the reach of international inspectors. Has anyone been monitoring IL-76 flights between Damascus and Iran in recent days?
But President Obama isn't about to let an inconvenient scenario interfere with the current "breakthrough." He plans to ask Congress to put off a vote on military action for at least two weeks, to give diplomacy a chance to work.
You can move a lot of WMD out of a country in 14 days. Watching this little fiasco unfold, we were reminded of another diplomatic "triumph" from the last century. It was 1938 and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had returned from Munich and his meeting with Adolf Hitler, proclaiming "peace in our time." We know how that turned out.
Of course, Mr. Chamberlain later admitted his mistakes. Good luck getting a similar admission out of the current U.S. administration, now preoccupied with touting its "triumph."
Now, go home and sleep quietly in your beds.