America’s habit of distilling vicious, pitiless, cynical reality into a morality play can be an oasis. But it can also slip into absurdity that would have satisfied Ionesco, and that’s what’s happening now.
The White House is floundering, declaring itself the "exceptional" enforcer of decency, with America’s popular media nodding hallelujahs.
The apogee, at least so far, took place during President Obama’s round of one-on-one television interviews Monday, intended to press his case for a military attack on Syria. Seated across from Obama in the White House, CNN’s stentorian Wolf Blitzer advised the president he was "being seen right now on CNN … around the world, including in Damascus."
"What I’d like you to do, Mr. President … [is] look directly into the camera, talk to President Bashar al-Assad, tell him specifically what you think he must do to avert a U.S. military strike."
It was an astonishing, squirm-inducing moment.
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Setting aside CNN’s brazen self-promotion, Blitzer was practically shouting the doctrine of exceptionalism, urging the president to directly lecture an adversary, with the network’s assistance, on how to escape America’s righteous fury.
Obama, at least, had the grace to smile and decline, saying Assad probably "has people who’ll be watching this."
"He’s probably watching it himself," Blitzer eagerly replied.
Seizing on a silly idea
Actually, Assad probably had other matters to attend to. He’d already figured out how to not only avert an American strike, but how to remain in power, and had done so without any help from Howling Wolf or President Obama.
Hours before the CNN moment, talking tough in London, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had contemptuously told a reporter Assad might be able to prevent a strike if he agreed to hand over all his chemical weapons within a week and allow them to be destroyed.
Kerry correctly noted that it couldn’t be done, and therefore, in his view, wouldn’t happen.
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Here in Washington, Kerry’s officials immediately laughed off the idea, basically saying their boss had just been indulging in a little rhetoric about a silly idea.
But the wily autocrats in Damascus and Moscow had been listening, and didn’t think it was silly at all.
In short order, Moscow announced its official endorsement of Kerry’s proposal. A few hours later, Assad’s regime welcomed it, too.
By the time Wolf Blitzer was trying to get the president to participate in his cringe-worthy little diplomatic initiative, the world was latching onto the new proposal, and Congress had the excuse it needed to postpone any vote on authorizing a strike against Syria.
The White House was quickly — and conveniently, given where the congressional vote seemed to be headed — forced to acknowledge the proposal and put its military plans on hold.
By Monday evening, the administration was trying to take credit for Kerry’s "initiative," and, correctly, pointing out that Assad would never have agreed to any such thing without the threat of a military attack.
Well, whatever, as George W. Bush would have said.
A tricky proposal
What matters to Assad and his patrons in Moscow, who don’t see the world in moral terms at all and who’ve been peddling obdurate denials that Syria ever used chemical weapons, is that they’d suddenly been provided with a path out of the mess.
Never mind that the proposal, as Kerry noted, is close to impossible.
Arms experts agree that finding, corralling and then destroying Assad’s stockpile of chemical agents may not be possible in the long run, let alone the week’s time America has demanded.
Simply by saying go ahead and try, though, Assad wins.
First, the chemical agents are just a pain now. They weren’t effective militarily, and clearly, with all this uproar, using them again would be pushing it too far, at least any time soon.
Second, this deal would presumably leave Assad in power.
Certainly, Russia would veto France’s security council resolution assigning blame to Assad for the attacks and referring the regime to the International Criminal Court for prosecution. Moscow clearly wants ambiguity where the subject of blame is concerned, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon seems inclined to go along with that.
Third, the proposal would leave Assad in possession of other, more lethal means to continue slaughtering his own citizens.
He needs his air bases, attack helicopters, jets and artillery pieces intact.
Fourth, signing the Convention on Chemical Weapons, as Assad is now offering to do, is obviously designed to focus attention on the other six nations that have either refused to sign or ratify the treaty — Israel and Egypt among them. Already, Assad’s ally, Iran, is talking about the necessity to cleanse the "entire region" of chemical weapons.
So, all good for Damascus.
Status quo in Syria?
No doubt, if Russia’s proposal does go anywhere, there’ll be all sorts of stalling and evasion. Already, Russia is objecting to any binding Security Council resolution, and demanding that Obama publicly abjure the use of force as a precondition.
It’s all an entirely shrewd reading of world and American public opinion.
The status quo in Syria minus some chemical weapons is fine with important players who are utterly uninterested in choosing sides or even stopping the civil war in Syria, when the alternative to Assad might be worse.
Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas put it nicely in the New York Times: "Let them [Assad and the rebels] both bleed, hemorrhage to death: that’s the strategic thinking here."
Meanwhile, Obama, having foolishly painted himself into a corner by declaring a "red line" on chemical weapons a year ago, is undercut even by members of his own party in Congress, who know how to read a poll.
He's been reduced to arguing that Syria poses no threat to America, and yet attacking it is in America's national security interest.
The sorrow of it all, though, is that Obama was right when he finally did look directly into the live TV camera Tuesday night and tell the world that what Assad did was evil and reprehensible and deserving of punishment.
He was right to invoke the victims foaming at the mouth, and the Syrian father trying to rouse his dead children. He’d have been just as correct to cite all the torture and barbarism and massacres of the past two years, and to have done it forcefully, and much earlier.
But morality plays don’t let the forces of evil get away with atrocities. Reality does.