The Caravan

Barack Houdini: Making Syria Disappear

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The online publication, Politico, put it well: Barack Obama tripped over Syria and fell on Iran.  That remarkable Obama luck, the luck that saw him through his bid for the United States Senate, the obtuseness of the Hillary Clinton campaign that had her win practically all the primaries that matter only to lose the nomination, to a rival who had gamed the system by prevailing in caucuses in Montana and Idaho, the financial hurricane that erupted in September 2008 and doomed the candidacy of Senator McCain – that luck was there for him in the matter of Syria as well.

President Obama made a mockery of his authority, and of much of America’s reputation abroad, when he threatened dire consequences for the Syrian dictatorship over the use of chemical weapons only to pull back and propose a congressional vote on the use of force in Syria.  Luck again intruded: Right in the nick of time, when it was clear that he would be rebuffed by the Congress, deliverance materialized in the shape of a Russian proposal put forth by Vladimir Putin that held out the promise of ridding the Syrian regime of its chemical weapons.  The Russian proposal was defective.  The only guarantee in it was a break for the regime of Bashar al-Assad.  The dictator was suddenly off the hook.  The war crimes of three years were forgotten, it was the crimes of a single day, August 21, when Bashar al-Assad’s forces used chemical weapons in an attack on a Damascus suburb, that became the focus of the Russian-American diplomacy.  The Syrian ruler, a monster who had brutalized his own population and laid waste to ancient, proud cities, was turned into a key diplomatic player.  He was needed now to account for the chemical stockpiles and to make good on turning them over to international inspectors.  The Syrian rebellion had been waiting for mercy and help; its leaders, if only for a moment, believed that the cavalry – the American cavalry – was on its way.  These hopes were shattered, Mr. Obama had not changed his ways.  He had done his best to ignore the ordeal of Syria, and his policy had not altered.  He was grateful for the exit given him by the master of the Kremlin.

It was amid this confusion, and this display of American irresolution that Hassan Rouhani descended on the United Nations.  The Iranian had been dispatched by the Supreme Leader, and the commanders of the Revolutionary Guard, to strike a deal with an American president in need of a diplomatic breakthrough – or what could be passed off as a foreign policy achievement.  The Iranian theocracy was possessed of clarity: It wanted the economic sanctions imposed on it lifted, as it held onto its nuclear quest.  Rouhani, and the Supreme Leader who had given the agile politician his mission, believed that they were in a seller’s market.  The eagerness with which Barack Obama pursued Hassan Rouhani was destined to favor the Iranian theocrats.  They had given nothing concrete away.  They had helped Bashar al-Assad turn the tide of war in his favor but were now promised a role in the international diplomacy over Syria.  They had been steadfast in support of their client in Damascus, while the democracies had abandoned and left defenseless the forces of the opposition.  No wonder Hassan Rouhani could speak of Syria as a “civilizational jewel” as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah were raining death and destruction on what remains of that tormented country.

Grant Barack Obama the advantage of his guile.  He was sure he could run out the clock on the Syrian rebellion, he had paid no heed to the devastating consequences of the Syrian war on Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey.  He had bet that there would be no pressing demand at home for a mission of rescue in Syria.  He had presented the American people with a false choice: abdication or boots on the ground.  He reminded them, again and again, how weary they were of the exertions of war.

Then came the tsunami: the government shutdown.  No one recalled the name of that country by the Mediterranean where a war had been raging for nearly three years.  Hail Barack Obama, the Houdini of his time.  He had made the accumulated American influence of decades vanish before a distracted audience.