Harold Wilson was right: A week is a long time in politics. The one just behind us—the longest of Barack Obama’s presidency thus far—has provided a mix of drama, bravado, mendacity and stupidity unseen since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
That crisis was a more serious affair than Obama’s Syrian gambit—thermonuclear war was a real possibility—but there are interesting parallels concerning the adversaries’ decision-making skills and strategies. It would be wrong, however, to compare Obama to John F. Kennedy. In fact the roles between Moscow and Washington were reversed last week. It was Obama who acted recklessly when he painted himself into the corner; and it was Putin who offered Obama an exit strategy, much in the manner of JFK offering the Soviets a face-saving formula 51 years ago.
Back then the American red line—the naval quarantine around Cuba—was upheld. The Soviets backed down and agreed to dismantle their missiles on the island in exchange for two U.S. commitments: not to invade Cuba, and to remove American medium-range Jupiter nuclear missiles from Turkey and Italy. Those concessions were cost-free for the Administration: after the Bay of Pigs no invasion remained on the cards, while Jupiter missiles were obsolete and slated for removal even before the crisis.
It was likewise no real sacrifice for the Russians to offer the removal of Bashar al-Assad’s chemical arsenal. He has no pressing military need of those weapons, in any event he cannot use them without risking American attack, and he will therefore observe the Geneva agreement reached by Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Bashar cannot afford to alienate Russia, whose continued supplies of conventional weaponry are a matter of life and death for his government; and the terms of the agreement leave little room for ambiguity, contrary to the warmongers’ claims.
Kennedy emerged victorious from the Cuban affair and his crisis management skills enhanced his reputation at home and abroad. Khrushchev was fatally wounded and less than a year later his colleagues on the Politburo had him removed from power. One of their criticisms concerned his “erratic” behavior, a veiled reference to the risky and ultimately untenable Soviet position during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Obama will not be impeached, but his standing is now much weakened by the manner in which he was refused Congress’s share of the responsibility for the attack and had to grab the Russian lifeline. His speech to the nation last Tuesday, full of distortions and half-truths, was arguably his least successful such performance to date. His grimaces were bizarre. His assurances that he opposes excessive executive power (“after a decade that put more and more war-making power in the hands of the president … while sidelining the people’s representatives from the critical decisions about when we use force”) should enter the annals of presidential hypocrisy, coming from the man who waged a seven-month air campaign against Libya two years ago without congressional authorization and who claimed constitutional authority to do so “in the best interest of American foreign policy and national security goals.”
Obama has avoided the consequences of his blunder by accepting Russia’s return to the table as a key Middle Eastern player for the first time since the era of Gorbachev. He should use that presence to look for the means of managing the Syrian civil war, rather than “ending” it. The United States and Russia have a joint interest in preventing a jihadist victory in Syria. That interest is more pronounced in Russia, which does not want yet another extremist hotbed in the proximity of the Caucasus, but a Syria controlled by al-Qaeda affiliates would also threaten stated U.S. interests by destabilizing Lebanon and Iraq immediately and Jordan eventually. Contrary to the arguments used by Netanyahu’s friends in Washington in their campaign in favor of the air strikes, a jihadist victory in Syria would also present a real, albeit more long-term threat to Israel.
In his April 12 address, Obama said he was working with U.S. allies to “provide humanitarian support, to help the moderate opposition and to shape a political settlement” for ending the war in Syria. The first and the last of those three objectives are incompatible with the middle one. Instead of helping the elusive “moderate opposition” Obama should consider the possibility of a protracted freeze on the battle lines, with neither side able to secure outright victory. It is worth exploring, now that returning to the option of air strikes at a later date is unlikely. Seasoned realists like Putin and Lavrov may find it interesting.