Until this week, President Obama seemed to be boxed in on Syria, stuck between authorizing air strikes nearly two-thirds of the nation opposes, or failing to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and deter him from using chemical weapons.
Then, Secretary of State John Kerry possibly gaffed his way into a potential non-military solution that has rapidly gained momentum. Under the developing proposal, Syria would turn over its chemical weapons stash and join the Chemical Weapons Convention. In exchange, the U.S. would agree to lay off an attack.
In essence, that represents a perfect compromise for Obama: He can claim to have nixed Assad's chemical weapons capability in a single stroke, all without going against the harsh grain of public opinion.
It's a fortuitous development for the president, whose poll numbers had slid as voters soured on his handling of the Syrian dilemma. The president's approval rating is underwater after a rosy run to start the year, per Gallup's daily tracking poll, and for the first time in his presidency, a majority of voters (54 percent) disapprove of his handling of foreign policy, according to McClatchy.
Kerry's seemingly offhand suggestion — which Obama hailed Monday as a possible "breakthrough" — has handed Obama a "foreign policy gift from the gods," says Foreign Policy's Daniel W. Drezner. Though the proposal would only be a short-term solution, and could come with some serious technical hiccups, it would at least allow Obama to claim credit for forcing Syria to give up its chemical weapons.
The worst-case scenario is that, after a spell, we're back to where we are now — with the benefit of the United States observing that it gave the U.N. route a fair shake. Diplomatically, that's still a win. This also holds, by the way, if the Syrian government defects and uses chemical weapons again. Such an action after this kind of agreement puts far more diplomatic pressure on Assad's backers than its critics. [Foreign Policy]
In a recent interview with Charlie Rose, Assad refused to even admit that Syria had chemical weapons. Now, his government is reportedly rushing to not only confirm their existence, but to turn them over to the international community as well.
BREAKING: Syrian foreign minister says Syria will declare its chemical weapons arsenal, sign chemical weapons convention.
— The Associated Press (@AP) September 10, 2013
Remember, President Obama's goal was never to oust Assad; the administration made it clear its sole objective was to deter him and others from using chemical weapons in the future. Securing a deal under which Syria signs on to a chemical weapons ban "definitely, almost definitionally, reinforces the ban" on such weapons, says the Washington Post's Ezra Klein.
"The truth is that given where the polls and the vote count stand on the authorization of force, I can't believe the White House's strategy on Syria is working out this well," Klein writes. "I doubt they can, either. But at this point, it looks like they might win without firing a single shot."
Unlike previous calls for military retaliation, the disarmament proposal has the tentative backing of all five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council: Russia, China, France, Britain, and the U.S. France has said it will soon introduce a resolution calling on Syria to abandon its chemical weapons.
The proposal comes with one huge caveat. Russia is insisting that the U.S. remove the threat of military force as a precursor to the deal. Obama has said it's necessary to keep that threat on the table to secure a meaningful deal.
Hewing to the Russian demand, Obama would risk prematurely giving up his leverage. He could also take some flack for appearing to cave to Russia and Syria's demands.
"Assad gasses people and resumed bombing his people today, and it’s the United States that is expected to renounce the use of military force," complains National Review's Jim Geraghty.
Obama could also come under criticism for lurching from one possible solution to the next, suggesting that the administration doesn't really have a clear idea of how to proceed against Assad. Here's Julia Ioffe at The New Republic:
First, he drew a red line on chemical weapons, seemingly by accident. Then, he all but ignored chemical weapons use by Assad until the evidence forced itself on the world. Then he agonized on whether to act, while [Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin] Dempsey and the Pentagon rolled him, leaking their military plans to anyone who would listen, "probably," said one insider, "because they didn't want to act." Then, he talked about how limited the strikes would be, all while Assad moved his men and his guns into residential areas and the Russians moved their ships in. Then, out of nowhere, he decided to take it to Congress. [The New Republic]
Still, at this stage of the game, Obama may want to take what he can get.