Wednesday, September 11, 2013

"we're not incompetent"

No, that isn't an actual quote from the briefing an unnamed official gave the media yesterday, but it was the implicit message. The official went to great lengths to counter the conventional wisdom that Secretary Kerry misspoke by mentioning the possibility of a deal where Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons and that the President in desperation seized on the Russian offer to work on such a plan.  No, the official argued, this idea has been bouncing around for over a year, Obama and Putin even discussed it recently in St. Petersburg. The official even detailed the number of minutes various phone calls lasted.

It might even be true, but the lemonade was surely made from lemons.  The most charitable interpretation that can be put on recent events is that the administration, fearing defeat on Capitol Hill, seized a lifeline thrown by the Russians. It may pull them to a safe harbor, but it's not clear what happens later. A second possibility is that the administration is truly muddled, jumping from one idea to another. The least credible interpretation is that the administration saw this as part of a calculated strategy to get UN action paving the way for an eventual airstrike when diplomacy fails and expecting Congress either to endorse force then or at least not complain.

The President's speech lacked a punch line. There was no call for action, no roadmap for how this diplomatic effort might lead to that better world when no one dares to use chemical weapons. "Wait and see," and "don't vote now" leave Congress and the rest of us puzzled rather than reassured. The most persuasive analysis comes from Dana Millbank, who says, "But it feels as if the ship of state is bobbing like a cork in international waters."

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