Putin’s gambit, where does it leave us?

There is a good chance that President Obama will latch on to Vladimir Putin’s proposed resolution to our confrontation with Syria over its chemical weapons. I agree with Scott that the resolution will be more phony than real. In other words, Assad will not turn over his stash of chemical weapons; at best he won’t use them again in this war.

Where would this resolution leave us? I think there are three reasons to attack Syria: (1) to deter Assad from killing more civilians with chemical weapons, (2) to affirm the international norm against using such weapons, and most importantly, (3) to reverse the momentum of the civil war, which has been running in favor of Assad, Hezbolllah and Iran.

Once Obama sought authorization from Congress, I believe a fourth reason emerged — to avoid the loss of U.S. credibility that would have followed the bipartisan rejection of a president’s modest proposal to use force against an Iranian proxy whom we had warned would face consequences if it used chemical weapons.

Let’s look at each of these objectives in light of Putin’s gambit.

First, Assad probably will be deterred from using chemical weapons. While he isn’t going to turn them over to any meaningful extent to an international body, he will pretend to. Using chemical weapons again would shatter the pretense and create the likelihood of an attack by the U.S. and possibly others.

Second, under Putin’s gambit, Assad goes unpunished for using chemical weapons, so the international norm isn’t upheld. However, it is less shattered than would have been the case if there were no response at all to his use of these weapons, as so many proposed.

Third, I don’t believe that Assad is set back appreciably in the civil war by Putin’s gambit. If it were otherwise, Putin wouldn’t have proposed it and Assad wouldn’t agree. But Obama can still set back Assad if he follows through with administration promises to increase aid to the Free Syrian Army.

Fourth, U.S. credibility isn’t vindicated by agreeing to Putin’s gambit for at least two reasons. First, it’s largely a phony resolution — a cheap way out for Obama — and will be recognized as such. Second, the damage to our credibility has already occurred. It is now confirmed that both political parties, and America at-large, are too “war weary” to engage in even the limited use of force against our worst enemies among nations when they commit atrocities the president (pursuant to international norms) has declared unacceptable.

In sum, I find the pending resolution far less desirable than an attack would have been. However, it yields a somewhat better outcome than we would have been saddled with had the U.S. made no response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons, as so many proposed.

This analysis deals with only one side of the equation, though. For those who believe that an attack would have created major risks for the U.S. — e.g., protracted U.S. involvement in Syrian fighting, or an attack on Israel, or a military confrontation with Russia, or a victory for al Qaeda — Obama’s acceptance of Putin’s gambit presumably would come as a relief.


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