Kevin Drum gives a summary of the Syria situation so far, and asks, "Epic botch or brilliant diplomacy?"
I am eagerly waiting for some plugged-in White House reporter to write a definitive tick-tock about the whole Syria thing. The beginning of the story is pretty well known. I don't think there's much question that President Obama initially failed to grasp the level of opposition to his plan for air strikes, and that this forced him into a series of clumsy reverses and foolish statements. It was a pretty embarrassing fubar.[My emphases.]
But despite the endless petulance from the usual suspects, the past two weeks have been different. By hook or by crook, Obama (a) raised the issue of Assad's chemical weapons to an international level, (b) got Vladimir Putin (!) to take a lead role in reining them in, (c) got Assad to join the chemical weapons ban and agree to give up his stockpiles, and (d) do it all while keeping military pressure as an active option, but without ever firing a shot. Carrying out the inspections and destruction of Assad's weapons will obviously be a Herculean task, but still, this is a good start.
So here's what I want to know: was this all just a lucky accident? I've heard a couple of rumors lately that John Kerry's "off the cuff" remark about Assad giving up his chemical weapons wasn't unintended at all. In fact, he was authorized by the White House to bring it up when an opportunity presented itself, and that opportunity came last Monday. Kerry's actual choice of words may have been a little awkward, but it was no accident. Putin expected it; Kerry knew what he was doing; Lavrov called to coordinate a few hours afterward; and the Russians then made their proposal. But this has all been kept under strict lock and key because the whole point was to make this a Putin initiative, one that he'd have ownership of. If it's his baby, he'll fight for it instead of coming up with endless reasons to nitpick an American proposal to death.
Is this how things went down? I have no idea. But I'd sure like to find out. If it's true, it would be one of the most fascinating pieces of diplomatic legerdemain in recent years. And it would demonstrate an almost unheard-of willingness in a U.S. president to accept mountains of abuse because secrecy was essential to getting the job done.
So: crackpot rumor or actual fact? Someone with good White House sources needs to figure this out.
Addendum: The NY Times certainly isn't taking this tack. According to them:
Secretary of State John Kerry had just made an offhand remark about how President Bashar al-Assad of Syria could avoid a military strike — and now Sergey V. Lavrov, Russia’s hard-charging foreign minister, was on the phone.
Mr. Lavrov was not about to let the moment pass.What aides to Mr. Kerry were already trying to roll back, Mr. Lavrov seized on, telling Mr. Kerry he would immediately go public with a Russian-led proposal to dismantle the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal. That prompted a sharp response from Mr. Kerry who warned in the 14-minute call, “We are not going to play games.”By the time Mr. Kerry’s plane landed back in Washington, the ground had shifted and on Saturday, not a week later, Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lavrov completed the plan sitting by the pool at a Geneva hotel.It is a pact that American arms control experts have scrambled to shape and that the White House believes may be the best way to the uphold prohibitions against the use of poison gas without resorting to military force. But it is also one that the Kremlin clearly thinks serves the interests of Russia and the Syrian government.As the diplomatic technician for his boss, President Vladimir V. Putin, Mr. Lavrov maneuvered to hem in the United States, averting a unilateral military strike and reasserting Russia’s role — all while Russia was continuing to provide weapons to Mr. Assad and diplomatic cover for his effort to suppress an uprising.More broadly, though, Mr. Lavrov has sought to force the United States into a conversation that the Kremlin hopes will set a precedent, establishing Russia’s role in world affairs based not on the dated cold war paradigm but rather on its own outlook, which favors state sovereignty and status quo stability over the spread of Western-style democracy.
So was it as it appeared? A mistake by Kerry, seized upon by the Russians, then seized upon by the Americans?A senior State Department official said the American side was surprised at a lack of specificity in an opening statement by Mr. Lavrov in Geneva, which prompted American experts to insert detailed provisions and deadlines to try to turn it into a workable plan.