How It Can Still Go Wrong for Obama

His turn on Syria avoids a cliff, but it sets him on a rocky road that could still rattle his presidency.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) walks past U.S. President Barack Obama (R) during a group photo at the G20 Summit in St. Petersburg September 6, 2013.  (REUTERS)

The sudden swerve toward international diplomacy offers President Obama the opportunity of a better outcome in Syria — at the risk of creating an enervating standoff that weakens him in all the other struggles barreling his way this fall.

When Obama agreed this week to pursue the unexpected Russian initiative to place Syria's chemical weapons under international control for eventual destruction, the most important thing the president accomplished was to defer the confrontation at home and abroad.

That offers him the immediate upside of avoiding a congressional vote he appeared likely to lose in the House and perhaps the Senate, too. The downside is, he's ensured that the Syrian showdown will continue for weeks, and likely months, clouding everything else he wants to accomplish.

By the time that process ends, Obama might have done much more to remove the chemical-weapons threat from Syria than he could have achieved in a military action short of outright invasion. Yet there's equal risk that he will soon be so tangled in inconclusive international wrangling, he will wish he had unilaterally made his point by quickly striking Syria in early September. Obama steered away from the cliff for now, but he turned onto a rocky road that promises more bumps ahead.

Unless the talks with Russia break down quickly (always a possibility), Obama must run a diplomatic gantlet to get a United Nations resolution passed to authorize international negotiators to catalog and destroy Syria's chemical weapons. That effort will require tough negotiating, and almost certainly artful evasion, to devise language that carries deadlines and a threat of consequences credible enough to prompt Syrian compliance, but not specific enough to spook Russia or China.

Even assuming Obama crosses this hurdle, he would enter the more daunting phase of executing weapons inspections during an ongoing civil war. The precedent of nearly four months of U.N. inspections in Iraq before the 2003 invasion shows how complex and maddening this process can be — even without an active conflict boiling around it. That investigation provoked frequent complaints from both international inspectors and the U.S. that Saddam Hussein was impeding the inspections (self-destructively, because he had no actual weapons of mass destruction to hide). At one point, an exasperated Colin Powell, then-secretary of State, invoked the Pink Panther movies to warn that Iraq could not have inspectors "play detectives or Inspector Clouseau running all around Iraq looking for this material."

The prospect of a comparable process in Syria echoes with irony: After coming to national notice largely by opposing the Iraq war, Obama now finds himself launching a search for weapons of mass destruction, backed by the threat of American force, in another Middle Eastern country.

There are reasons to think intervention might turn out better this time. The saber rattling and diplomatic swirl have already generated a significant benefit: Syria's acknowledgment, for the first time, that it possesses chemical weapons. Russia, although Syria's principal patron, has an interest in controlling chemical weapons that could eventually drift into control of Islamic extremists operating in Chechnya. Iran has also expressed preliminary support for the Russian proposal.

The diplomatic route, even if it eventually fails, could also provide some oxygen to the fading embers of Obama's push for military action. It may be easier for legislators to endorse American force if Obama first tries to resolve the crisis through multilateral action. Democrats, in particular, may be more comfortable supporting the president "if people believe he's gone through a real [international] process," notes lobbyist Steve Elmendorf, a former top House Democratic aide. Perhaps even more relevantly, against the backdrop of frustrated diplomacy, it might be easier for Obama to hit Syria without asking again for Congress's approval, as Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., counseled on CNN immediately after Obama's speech.

Yet opening this diplomatic front carries real risks for Obama. A diplomatic agreement could control Syria's chemical weapons more effectively than a military strike — which, the administration has made clear, would not target such stockpiles directly. However, an agreement focused narrowly on chemical weapons would also preempt a broader military move that weakens Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. Any chemical-weapons deal would likely improve Assad's job security.

At home, this path ensures that Syria remains in the headlines for weeks. And if the administration's cause there founders (either at the U.N. or during inspections), that will hurt Obama exactly as he's facing enormous challenges this fall: the contested launch of his health care exchanges for the uninsured; showdowns with congressional Republicans over the budget and debt ceiling; and the uphill climb to kick-start immigration-reform legislation now stalled in the House.

Russia's intervention could produce benefits in Syria and beyond (perhaps even reviving nuclear negotiations with Iran). But there's reason for skepticism as the details unfold. Vladimir Putin acted at a moment when not only the U.S. but the entire Western world had displayed little stomach for confronting Syria, and whatever else can be said about him, the Russian president has never shown himself to be a man who rewards weakness.

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