This is one possible take on what Obama thinks he’s doing with respect to Syria – and given the Big O’s proficiency at mega-dimensional chess in the past, one shouldn’t rule it out entirely. That being said, there are numerous arguments that President Obama has less control over what’s going on than this scenario portrays.
The basic claim here is that Obama has been sabre-rattling not because he’s anxious to start a war, but because it’s scaring the hell out of the Syrian government, and its client, the Russian government. The fact that we now have an initiative on the table from the government of Syria for them to destroy their existing stock of chemical weapons argues somewhat for this interpretation. Indeed, the fact that the Syrian government is admitting it _has_ chemical weapons, whatever song and dance it may be undertaking about whether it has used them or not, that also argues somewhat for this interpretation.
Somewhat. But I’m not fully convinced. For starters, the Syrians are already doing a pivot on whether they’re willing to do anything more than provide “information” rather yield than the weapons themselves to be put beyond use. John Kerry has already lit into them about that, insisting that this negotiation about the disposition of the weapons “is not a game”. If the Syrian government keeps treating this as if it were a game, we’ll know this was more the Assad regime and the Putin regime buying time than a serious initiative.
Another thing that argues against this strictly positive interpretation of Obama’s mega-dimensional chess skills in Syria is Vladimir Putin’s insulting diatribe in the New York Times last week. Someone about to reach a deal on getting the Syrian government to destroy its chemical weapons stocks doesn’t go out of his way to insult the American president repeatedly in print. If the Russians were really _scared_ of Obama instead of playing their own diplomatic games, Putin would call up the New York Times and ask them not to run the op ed after all (or never send it to them in the first place). It would be so vital to protect the diplomacy so as to not have the US go medieval on military targets in Damascus, Putin would have gone out of his way not to fight propaganda battles in the pages of US news dailies instead. The fact that he was not only willing to do that, but engaged enthusiastically in a campaign to convince Americans they are governed by a warmongering madman, suggests that maybe the offer of a deal in Syria is not genuine.
So, no, I’m not there on this interpretation. Unless the Syrian and Russian governments make it clear they really are willing to deal and put actual chemical weapons up for decommissioning by international authorities, we have to assume this is just a ploy to buy time for the Assad regime.
The real question is, why would the Syrian and Russian government float this initiative in the first place? Why wouldn’t they simply wait for the promised Congressional vote, which would most likely have dealt Obama’s Syria policy an embarrassing defeat?
Possibly, the answer is that a democratic vote on Syria, as I have been contending, would prove that the US is no Empire – and both the Syrian and Russian governments desperately need to keep that stereotype alive in people’s minds.
Indeed, Putin’s New York Times article repeatedly played on the the Imperial Americans narrative, in an exceedingly undiplomatic way – but a way which makes perfect sense if the goal of Russian policy is to keep everyone believing that Bush never left office. The Assad regime, of course, also never tires of playing the Empire card, and it’s hard to understand why it would have used chemical weapons in its war against its own people if it were not to lure the Americans _into_ the conflict, thereby making it possible to cast itself as a victim of “imperialism” rather than the blood-soaked tyrannical monster it is, rallying regional allies to its side in the process.
Most importantly, floating a bogus negotiated initiative would have the effect of getting Obama to cancel his planned vote in Congress about strikes in Syria. So now, if there is no diplomatic deal to be had, we would have the spectacle of no deal-the Syrian and Russian governments blame intransigent Americans for no deal-and look, no vote in Congress now! That Obama!
My advice to the Obama Administration: find out if the Syrian and Russian delegations are serious about destroying weapons, if not, bring the American delegation home and continue on with the vote in Congress. In all honesty, I think that vote is what they are afraid of, not any sabre-rattling on the part of the Administration. That vote is what will formally end the Empire Myth they need to keep alive.