There is little left to be written about the discordant integration of reality television and The Gong Show that President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, and their collaborators produced over the past three weeks over Syria. Like an unpredictably bouncing American football, this story moved in diagonals and backward and forward until the target became peacemaker, the villain the benefactor, and the means to achieve the end shrank “unbelievably” and then vanished, as the wrongdoer surrendered the forbidden weapons he claimed not to have to those who denied he had used them and had probably supplied them in the first place. And then, the presidential entourage launched a Twitter and spin offensive vastly more complicated than anything that the commander-in-chief, after he abdicated that role to the Congress, had contemplated asking, unsuccessfully, for the Congress, which had no constitutional standing to do anything of the kind, to authorize.
Even if history were ransacked to produce a greater sequence of fiascos in a place more frequently occupied by effective foreign- and security-policy specialists, it could not do so, and we would have to plunge deep into comic fiction to find a precedent. Weekly Standard editor William Kristol was on the right track when he linked his comments on Syria to a video of “the other Marx,” the one with the silent brother. (It is time for Chico to complain about “the sanity clause,” as he did in A Night at the Opera.) It has come to this.
Lamentations and fault-finding have had a well-deserved innings, but I am scouring these events for something positive. It seems that this process makes it less likely that embattled Syrian president Bashar Assad will revert to this sort of weapon again. He may have come fairly close to a tiny retaliation from the United States, and in the event that he gasses his own civilian population again, there is a respectable chance that Obama will not abdicate as commander-in-chief; that all the imbeciles in Congress who lined up at television and broadcasting studios like food-stamp applicants to say that they did “not want to go to war” — as if that were what launching a couple of cruise missiles at no risk to those who fire them actually involved — will not obstruct him; and that the commander-in-chief will actually command that something proportionate and effective be done to punish what his secretary of state has already emptied his rhetorical clip describing as, inter alia, “a moral obscenity,” and so forth.
In that sense, enlisting the Russians, even in this charade of a contrived handover (or hand-back) of chemicals of potential mass murder, is probably a more effective deterrence to recidivism by Assad than the pathetic tokenism that the commander-in-chief was beseeching the reluctant fantasist warriors in the Congress to approve would have been. And having conferred, preposterously, the role of peacemaking deus ex machina on Vladimir Putin, the administration has endowed the Kremlin with a vested interest not to allow itself to be made a fool of by its protégé. Assad could probably reasonably infer that Putin, given his nostalgic KGB-alumnus ethos, might not be as philosophical about appearing to be an asinine stooge to the whole astonished world, as President Obama has, and that the consequences of casting Putin as one could be hazardous to Assad’s health. Putin’s former oligarchic partners in the pillaging of Mother Russia regularly come to a violent end, in the highest tradition of almost all the old Bolsheviks (except Stalin, of course, ex officio as executioner). And even the Russian leader’s frequent lapses into professed Christian religiosity for the benefit of gullible Americans (such as George W. Bush) do not mean that he would, if provoked, scruple to assist Assad into the Great Beyond so many of the Syrian president’s co-religionists claim to crave.