September 10, 2013

President Obama, in an interview with CNN, has now signaled openness to the Russian proposal to place Syria’s chemical weapons under international control. He called it a “positive development,” adding: “We’re going to run this to ground, to see if we can arrive at something that is enforceable and serious.”

I don’t know how seriously to take this, but the relief among Hill Dems is palpable. And it seems likely the Obama administration would like to find any way out it can at this point. Because clearly, the American people have said No to war, and Congress — for once — very well may reflect the American people’s wishes.

The polling this morning is absolutely brutal. A new New York Times/CBS poll finds that 61 percent oppose strikes on Syria; 69 percent say Obama should not go forward if Congress says No; 79 percent say the administration hasn’t explained its goals clearly; and only 33 percent approve of his handling of the Syria crisis.

Meanwhile, a new NBC/WSJ poll finds that 58 percent want their member of Congress to vote against strikes; only 44 percent support military action; and only 28 percent approve of Obama’s handling of the situation.

The American people have spoken clearly: No war. Unless Obama’s speech to the nation tonight is enormously persuasive, there’s still a decent chance Congress will say No, too.

The press this morning is filled with denunciations of Obama’s handling of the Syria situation, with some focused on the failure to persuade the public, and others on the fact that the emerging possibility of a diplomatic solution was set in motion by an inadvertent suggestion by Secretary of State John Kerry. Judging by the above polls, the American people agree that the administration has mishandled this badly. It seems plainly obvious, as Zach Goldfarb details, that the Obama administration’s message has at times been muddled and has not succeeded in addressing people’s concerns about intervention, in spite of agreement on Assad’s guilt.

But I continue to think we may see a very interesting experiment unfold here. If war is averted — whether through Congress saying No, and Obama acquiescing; or through a diplomatic solution involving international control over chemical weapons — I posit that the public will applaud it, and that the impact all this will have on Obama’s presidency here at home, and on the coming confrontations with Congress this fall, will be minimal. At best.

The public wants to avoid war. If that happens, the American people won’t care about the process that got us there. If Obama heeds Congress’ vote against war — which I believe he should — the public won’t see this as “weakness” or a huge “loss.” Americans will be relieved democracy worked. If a diplomatic solution is reached, the notion that Americans will care about the nuances that led up to it, rather than being pleased that the U.S. found a way around the war they don’t want — one that gets rid of Assad’s chemical weapons — is a Beltway-concocted fantasy.

And if either of these scenarios happens, in a few weeks we’ll find ourselves in pretty much exactly the same situation with regard to the government shutdown, debt limit and immigration fights that had long been expected for this fall — Syria or no Syria. And

That’s my bet. Others have bet the opposite. I hope we get a chance to see who’s right!

* OBAMA HAS FAILED TO EXPLAIN SYRIA STRATEGY: Some more interesting nuggets from the NYT/CBS poll:

* Only 21 percent say strikes would be “very effective” in stopping chemical weapons use;

* 63 percent say they’re concerned about civilians being killed in strikes;

* 66 percent are worried about a long and costly involvement.

The American people accept the administration’s arguments about Assad’s guilt; they don’t accept the underlying premise of Obama’s case, which is that strikes would deter further attacks and that they would solve more problems than they would create.

* A STEP TOWARDS A DIPLOMATIC SOLUTION? Reuters reports:

The Syrian government has accepted a Russian proposal to put its chemical weapons under international control to avoid a possible U.S. military strike, Interfax news agency quoted Syria’s foreign minister as saying on Tuesday.

One question is whether — or how — Obama will address this in his speech tonight.

* SENATE VOTE DELAYED BECAUSE OF OFFER: As you’ve heard, the Senate leadership has delayed the vote on authorizing strikes — previously scheduled for tomorrow — apparently to give the alternative a chance to develop:

A senior Democratic aide said the Russian proposal was a significant factor in the delay of the Senate vote, allowing members to consider the plan and also to hear from the president, who is to meet with them at the Capitol before an address to the nation on Tuesday night.

It seems as if the possibility of a No vote is also partly a factor, but this move — almost certainly done in consultation with the White House — suggests this is genuinely being taken seriously.

* OBAMA LOOKING FOR WAY TO EMBRACE DIPLOMATIC SOLUTION: Another key Obama quote from the CNN interview:

“I think that if we can come up with a mechanism to get these under control, verify and enforce that they are not being used, then we should do everything we can to pursue that,” Obama said. “But … that’s not going to happen if Assad thinks that he can lie his way through this and eventually the world forgets the images of those children who were gassed.”

The balance Obama needs to strike is to signal openness to a solution while projecting skepticism that Assad would abide by that, in order to keep up pressure in hopes that it will force a real solution.

 * HOW ASSAD MUST COMPLY WITH ANY DEAL: The New York Times editorial board spells out what Assad must do to give his commitment to a resolution any credibility:

Mr. Assad will need to allow monitors into the country immediately. That would be a gesture to the world that his government will abide by international laws against chemical weapons use. The Russians will have to work closely with the United States and the United Nations to create a plan to catalog and verify Syria’s chemical weapons and set forth a specific timetable for the removal and destruction of those weapons under international auspices.

Russia and the United States should propose a formal resolution by the United Nations Security Council — of which both are members — to condemn the use of chemical weapons in Syria, support this plan and put its full authority behind carrying it out, as well as establish consequences if Syria reneged.

Also see the Post’s editorial today, which argues that in order for this to work, the threat of force must be maintained.

* TED CRUZ COMES OUT AGAINST STRIKES: In an op ed for the Post, the Texas Senator argues against strikes, on the grounds that Assad’s use of chemical weapons is not a direct threat to our national security; that weakening Assad could help Al Qaeda, and that “unilaterally avenging humanitarian disaster” is “well outside the traditional scope of U.S. military action.”

* DEBT LIMIT FIGHT GEARS UP: GOP and Dem Congressional leaders are set to meet privately this Thursday to discuss the upcoming debt ceiling crisis. One hopes the only thing they discuss is this:

Obama and Reid say they simply will not negotiate over the debt limit, as they have in the past.

No need to say anything more.

* AND THE QUESTION OF THE DAY, SYRIA EDITION: This, from the Atlantic, on the notion that losing the Congressional vote on Syria will destroy Obama’s presidency, is just right:

Why do some pundits think Obama’s presidency depends on starting an unpopular war?

As Conor Friedersdorf argues, the pundits have this wrong: All of it will fade from the headlines; avoiding an unpopular war will not be a negative in the long run. ICYMI: My piece making a similar case.

What else?

 

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.