Suddenly in a hole on Syria, Obama got lucky with a way out

The President set a trap for himself with his 'red line' promise, but does he have Cameron or the Kremlin to thank for rescuing him?
  • @dusborne

It is not clear who Barack Obama should thank first for finding himself at least half way out of a very deep hole on Syria: the Kremlin, or David Cameron for bungling his Syria vote in Parliament.

If it hadn’t been for the Cameron debacle Mr Obama surely wouldn’t have run into such trouble trying to get an authorising resolution from Congress. Bombs might have flown by now and he probably would have ignored the out-of-the-blue dramas of last Monday when Russia, seizing on an off-hand comment by the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, in London, suggested getting Syria to abandon its chemical stockpile.

Until now at least, neither critics nor loyalists have had much good to say about the President’s approach on Syria. “Amateur hour”, Karl Rove called it. Mr Obama had never wanted to get America involved and yet he set a trap for himself last year by vowing to act if Syria crossed the “red line” of using chemical weapons. He has since tried to wriggle out from under those words, saying it was the world that drew the red line, not him.

It isn’t clear if the President knows that his zig-zagging on Syria has made him look weak and even feckless, or whether he even minds. America elected a leader who declared himself averse to war, so if, having declared a willingness to launch military strikes, he has then seemed to do everything possible to avoid pushing the button no one should be surprised. Exhibit A, of course, was his decision two weeks ago to ask Congress first.

But suddenly things are getting tidier. For better or worse, Mr Obama now has one goal to pursue: successfully working the diplomatic option presented by Russia to scoop up and destroy all of Syria’s chemical weapons.

Much can go wrong, and if it does, Mr Obama will again feel obliged to return to the option of strikes. But if the Kerry-Lavrov exercise succeeds, history will commend Mr Obama, particularly if it also leads to the start of peace negotiations. His dithering and hesitation will be compared favourably with George W Bush – who went after Saddam Hussein with near-blind zeal – and be seen instead as statesmanlike wisdom.