To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, this is the way Syria ends: Not with a bang, but a whimper. We are back where we started — lots of people dying — as the crisis recedes with a high five and a sigh, rather than with America blowing some stuff up.
The locus of our original outrage — 99,000 Syrians lost in a brutal sectarian war — had almost nothing to do with Assad’s alleged use of WMD. Thus the Syrian violence never could be addressed through even successful negotiations about mostly irrelevant WMD. It would have been as if, at the height of the Rwanda crisis, we had threatened to bomb an RPG depot to force the Hutus and Tutsis to continue with their machetes — then backed off, had an ongoing dialogue with Putin about such dangerous rocketry (as Rwandans continued at it with edged weapons), and called our bluff “non-stylish but smart diplomacy.”
So we moved on from Syria. The U.S. continues to express outrage and so continues to allow Assad and his many enemies to kill lots of people until one side loses or wins. The only difference, after the red lines were issued, hyped, and forgotten, is that while Assad once was ordered to step down, he is now a legitimate talking partner in global discussions. Using WMD worked. It certainly proved a good way for Assad to show off his French-accented English and stylish haircut and suit on prime-time American television. WMD proved a far better deal than a costly new Russian air-defense system in deterring U.S. bombs.
The present trajectory of endless haggling and rug-buying over WMD simply reduces the issue to its status before Obama’s unwise red line — mostly one of benign neglect, and mostly supported by the proverbially “tired” American people. After all, Obama can say to us, “Aren’t you happy with me that I didn’t do the stupid thing I promised to do?” Well, yes, sort of like the relieved police suicide negotiator after the would-be bridge-jumper finally slinks down off the pylon.
Obama is relieved that there is a critical but transitory moment of destiny in every crisis, real or manufactured. His own psychodramatic stare-down has long passed with his blink. It would be near impossible to work the public, the Congress, and the world back up into another melodrama. Again, because Obama never really wished to do anything in Syria other than bluster, there is no reason for him now to reopen the issue. And because Obama did not act when thousands died and he ordered Assad to go, and almost did act when WMD was used and did not, why act at all anymore? Even his critics prefer the virtual Obama.
Syria has also changed. Assad is no longer losing. Iran and Hezbollah have upped the ante. The insurgents seem morally compromised. Their connection with the “Arab Spring” is ancient history, and so is the Arab Spring itself. Iran is now talking directly to the American people in Putinesque fashion. Despite the mounting death toll, doing nothing in late 2013 will earn Obama far less condemnation than did doing nothing in 2011 or 2012. Syria is now either already lost, or impossible to sort out, or relegated to secondary consideration after all the diversionary talk about WMD.
So Obama’s inaction is now more attuned to political realities, here and abroad. His interventionist trial balloon exploded; the result will be that he probably won’t float one again. As far as the politics go, looking weak and confused is damaging, but perhaps not as damaging as acting weakly and confusedly, which was the likely result of an “unbelievably small” sort of “shot across the bow.”
But if Americans are relieved to let Syria be Syria, others crawled out of the woodwork at the sound of Obama’s loud empty bluster about bombing. Why the sudden Iran charm offensive, if not that the theocracy believes it can now follow Assad’s model, but by focusing on a nuclear bomb or at least the lifting of sanctions? And why is Putin suddenly in the news, as if to remind the world that he can prevent not just a reckless U.S. from doing real harm to others but, he feigns, to itself as well?
Obama is probably not too concerned with any of these worries. After all, he pulled out all the troops in Iraq, after a brilliant two-year surge that by January 2009 had led to a stable, consensual government. Apparently, such a legitimate constitutional Iraq was not as valuable to Obama as a reelection slogan that he had “ended the war” in Iraq.
Ditto Afghanistan. The once good war that candidate Obama promised to win is pretty bad; for Obama, leaving Afghanistan seems far more important than saving it. Again, “Bush did it” is all ye need to know about the looming defeat. Let us hope the Taliban does not play the role of the North Vietnamese in 1975. (How will there be boat people, with no boats and water? Airlifts to mountaintops for mountain people? Beheadings in lieu of reeducation camps?)
Who, Obama assumes, cares what Libya has become? “We came, we saw, [Gaddafi] died,” Hillary chuckled, as if she had been Caesar on a white horse at Zela taking out Pharnaces II of Pontus.
So what difference at this point does it make? Who, Obama assumes, cares about what happened later in places like Benghazi or the current status of events on the ground in Tripoli? Like the stuff with the Russians and Assad, to the extent these are even problems, they exist down the line for someone else. If Obama retired early during the Noche Triste in Benghazi and played 15 rounds of cards with Reggie Love on the night of the Osama bin Laden hit (“I’m not, I’m not going to be down there, I can’t watch this entire thing”), why would he get too worked up about Syria?
But Iran’s President Rouhani, following Putin’s lead, apparently did. He wrote another therapeutic letter to the American people (albeit settling for the Washington Post rather than the New York Times; I guess the latter thought this nice dictator stuff could get habit-forming). The campus diversity czar, peace studies professor, or T-ball coach could have written Rouhani’s script — and no doubt they were all inspirations for his American speech handlers.
America, Rouhani reminds us, should pay attention to “identity” and avoid “zero-sum” attitudes. We must look for “root causes” of terrorism, seek “win-win” results, not get caught in a “Cold War” mentality, and we should “dialogue” — and for the “children,” no less. All Rouhani needs to let the centrifuges do their work, for the Republican Guard to finish up in Syria, and for his terrorists to keep blowing stuff up is to drop the lunatic Ahmadinejad mode, go T-ball therapeutic, and find in Obama a decent sort of Stanley Baldwin or Neville Chamberlain. The glee with which American elites have received Rouhani’s creepy letter suggests, aside from the fact that they read and write that stuff on campus all the time, how well Iranians understand us.
But more importantly, Rouhani meets an Obama not just weakened over his Syrian embarrassment, but actually convinced that he is “empowered” by it! Although he admits some loss of his usual panache and style, Obama brags that his diplomacy was brilliant, a virtual blueprint of thing to come.
After all, who could go 360 degrees in two weeks, from imminent bombing to legitimizing Assad and elevating the Russians, all at once ignoring and courting and ignoring the Congress — only to call it all a head-spinning success, ending with Putin shrugging that it will take lots of time to find WMD, though he (and now Rouhani!) deplores its use that led to one percent of the deaths in Syria? It is as if soaking yourself, and everyone in the vicinity, with gasoline and not lighting the match in your hand is better proof of your prudence than never going for the match and gas can in the first place.
Again, Rouhani is intrigued by such thinking. The fact that Obama legitimized the Assad, Hezbollah, Iranian axis in Syria, ignored the body count, confused and divided the nation and Congress, outsourced matters of WMD proliferation and use to Vladimir Putin, turned red lines into no-lines and bombing in 24 hours into talking for years — and called it all a smashing success — is, well, something worth following up on. Syria is history; Iran is now.
Most like Rouhani accept that Obama is interested only in a symbolic and rhetorical presidency that follows the path of least resistance. What the name, ethnic profile, and ideology of Obama represent to particular domestic and global constituencies — rather than what he does or even says — alone counts. And, of course, Obama has grasped and profited from that reality since he left Hawaii. It is a sort of codependency that Rouhani wishes to share for a while.
Yet if Obama’s psychodramas at home and abroad are critical in dividing the nation to win election or reelection, apart from the election cycle, they have little to do with actual governance and so quietly fade away, crisis by crisis. Obama’s existential Syrian civil war already has. In between a new war against evil gun owners and a renewed offensive against nihilist Tea Partiers, we will have now had another melodramatic “breakthrough” with Iran. As Obama said of his “success” with Syria, so too the Iranian diplomacy will not be “very smooth and disciplined and linear,” but instead will be only “about getting the policy right.”