Kerry's accidental gambit in London -- the details of which we'll discuss in a moment -- may have opened up a face-saving escape route for the president, and not a moment too soon. It's not like it's been smooth sailing for Obama since his re-election, but let's face it: Drawing a red line, then dithering for months before disclaiming the red line while threatening ("unbelievably small") military reprisals, followed by a failed (maybe-symbolic-maybe-not) vote in Congress would all add up to an unmitigated disaster. And thus, our Secretary of State may have gaffed his way into a possible "solution:"
America’s top diplomat suggested in a passing remark that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could avoid a U.S.-led strike if he handed over all his chemical weapons, but the State Department quickly dismissed the comment as more of a “rhetorical argument” than an offer. In a London news conference this morning, Secretary of State John Kerry responded to a question about whether Assad could do anything to avoid war by saying “he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow a full and total accounting.” ... The State Department was forced to clarify the remarks, calling them “rhetorical” and making clear its desire to strike could be tempered by a Syrian offer. Kerry’s point, according to spokeswoman Jen Psaki, “was that this brutal dictator with a history of playing fast and loose with the facts cannot be trusted to turn over chemical weapons.”
Hillary Clinton says Assad surrendering chem weapons would be “a significant step.”— Rick Klein (@rickklein) September 9, 2013
A seemingly offhand suggestion by Secretary of State John Kerry that Syria could avert an American attack by relinquishing its chemical weapons received an almost immediate welcome from Syria, Russia, the United Nations, a key American ally and even some Republicans on Monday as a possible way to avoid a major international military showdown in the Syria crisis. A White House official said the administration was taking a “hard look” at the idea.
It looks like the handcuffed Brits are tentatively on board, too. Did Kerry's comments transform themselves from a gaffe into official policy in less than an hour? (See update: Maybe not). Earlier this afternoon, the Senate began debate over an authorization of force resolution that's losing steam on Capitol Hill. A third poll out today details widespread public opposition to a Syria intervention, which has only increased since the administration began its media push in favor of military action. With those political realities as a backdrop, the administration might very well lunge at this opportunity to extricate the president from his self-inflicted "red line" trap. If Assad is willing to at least make a show of turning his chemical weapons over to the "international community" at the behest of his friends in Moscow, the result would amount to a bizarre, serendipitous, and imperfect win-win: Dangerous weapons would (theoretically) be confiscated from the regime, the US could claim that our "pressure" led to this concession, an unwanted intervention would be avoided, and the "red line" conundrum would be essentially resolved. Just this morning, the White House was staring a bruising political defeat in the face. Kerry's screw-up may have provided an off-ramp. All that's left is for Obama to hail this "progress" during his interviews tonight, scrap or totally re-write his Tuesday address, and withdraw the war resolutions from Congress. (The Senate is set to vote on Wednesday). Would Harry Reid -- who invoked Hitler and Satan in arguing in favor of bombing Syria just this afternoon -- be willing to perform a complete about-face to do Obama a solid? One would expect so, but wait. What's this?
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Congress should still vote to authorize a military strike on Syria, claiming the only reason this proposal is on the table is because of the threat of military action.
Question: Why would reluctant members of Congress stick their necks out and vote to authorize an unpopular strike when there's a tidy (if illusory) option on the table? Perhaps the new narrative developed too quickly for Carney to keep pace, and he'll be spinning away today's answer at tomorrow's press briefing. Or maybe the administration is still committed to having these votes. Why else would the president be showing up at a GOP luncheon tomorrow afternoon?
Breaking: Obama now attending Senate GOP lunch on Tues— Robert Costa (@robertcostaNRO) September 9, 2013
Hmm. In any case, NBC's Chuck Todd reports that White House insiders are growing anxious over the president's precarious position at home. Obama's credibility on the international stage isn't the only thing that's at stake here; there are domestic implications, too. The president is about to enter a period of intense partisan wrangling -- on the temporary budget, on the debt ceiling, on Obamacare implementation, etc. With his foreign policy approval rating dropping like a rock, Obama's advisers fear that Syria threatens to undercut his (already tenuous) standing with the public, and erode his dwindling political capital on other matters. That's why I suspect Team Obama will line up behind the Kerry/Putin "breakthrough" in fairly short order, declare victory, then sprint away from Syria.
UPDATE - The White House is back to repeating this line, and their Senate allies are still pressing forward on behalf of of a "yes" vote on authorization. I have no idea what the plan is at this point, and I'm not sure the White House does either. Total incoherence.
UPDATE II - No great surprise: Obama embraces the accidental diplomatic "breakthrough," and Reid delays the Senate vote.