The Washington Post

No time for political sport with Obama, Putin


Foreign policy isn’t domestic politics, and it shouldn’t be treated like a horse race.

The issue for Syria isn’t that one day Russian President Vladmir Putin is up and President Obama is down, or vice versa.

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washingon Post. He first came to the paper in 1966 and has covered numerous subjects, including nuclear weapons and arms control, politics and congressional investigations. He was among Post reporters awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. View Archive

Ending the prospect that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad again uses chemical weapons is one goal. Increasing prospects that the Sryian civil war can be halted is another.

The future of the Syrian people is in the balance. Who gets credit or blame for the outcome — at home or abroad — should be secondary to trying to reach an agreement.

So far, Obama and Putin have played equal roles. Obama’s threat to use force in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons on Aug. 21 was backed up with the movement of U.S. destroyers and aircraft carriers into position for such an attack. It clearly led Putin, who continues to deny Assad’s forces used chemical weapons, to decide to act on an idea that he and Obama had discussed for almost a year: placing Assad’s chemical stockpile under international control with the eventual goal of destroying it.

Putin’s action came as Obama faced a domestic political challenge — convincing Congress and the American people that a Syria strike would be the right action. When Putin’s offer came, Obama said he would defer seeking congressional support and hold up ordering any attack to see if diplomacy could work.

At home, Obama has been accused of zigzagging, a charge that also could have been leveled at Putin in Russia, if he faced the same standard as Obama.

Two front-page stories in Thursday’s New York Times illustrate the problematic horse-race approach on Syria.

“Yet suddenly Mr. Putin has eclipsed Mr. Obama as the world leader driving the agenda in the Syria crisis,” the Times story said. It added, “Mr. Putin appears to have achieved several objectives, largely at Washington’s expense.”

Putin “has stopped Mr. Obama from going around the United Nations Security Council, where Russia holds a veto, to assert American priorities unilaterally.”

In a companion story, the Times described Obama as changing course and showing “the rare instance of a commander in chief seemingly thinking out loud and changing his mind on the fly.”

This is too serious a situation to get caught up in the same superficial coverage that marks U.S. elections, where who is ahead and who is behind eclipses the candidates’ stands on issues. Thursday’s news conferences showed how difficult it will be to reach a solution.

■Timing: In an interview, Assad said that Syria would sign the Chemical Weapons Convention but that it would be 30 days before it would deliver details of its stockpile.

On the other hand, Secretary of State John F. Kerry told reporters in Geneva that an agreement he was working on with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had to be “implemented in a timely fashion,” implying he did not consider 30 days fast enough.

■U.S. aid to Syrian opposition: Assad said, “When the U.S. stops supplying weapons to terrorists and we see they are committed to stability in the region, then we will be ready to see this process through to the end.”

At the White House, press secretary Jay Carney told reporters the United States has been “stepping up our assistance to the Syrian military opposition, no question,” and indicated it will continue no matter what happens in current talks.

■Maintaining the threat of a military attack: Assad said his promise to turn over his chemical stocks “counts most of all on the U.S. renouncing threats of force and adhering to the Russian plan.”

That is not going to happen. Kerry referred to Obama’s speech in which the president noted the U.S. “military remains in a position to execute a plan around holding Assad accountable for his appalling use of chemical weapons against civilians.”

Yet, there were positive signs.

Lavrov said the decision to deal with chemical weapons “gives us an additional opportunity for Geneva II,” the joint U.S.-Russian plan for a conference that would bring Syrian groups together to create a post-Assad transitional government.

Kerry said that although the United States and Russia have their share of disagreements, “we agree that it would help to save lives if we can accomplish this,” meaning the isolation and destruction of the chemical weapons.

The many issues are worth working through, but assessing credit or blame at this stage is the last thing on which the news media or the public should be focused.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to



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