by James M. Wall
Monday, September 9, was planned as a day for the White House to persuade Congress to support military strikes on Syria. The highlight of the day’s “persuade Congress” plan was a White House appearance by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
After a luncheon meeting with President Obama, Clinton pledged her every effort to gain “yes” votes from Congress for a military attack.
Midway through her statement she had to shift, however, from attack mode to peace mode. A rapid series of “surprise” developments swept through London, Moscow and Damascus before dark in Washington Monday.
We may not know until the tell-all book on President Obama’s second term is published. But it sure looks like the Obama team spent this past weekend changing its “persuade Congress” plan to a “further pause for peace” plan.
Whatever it was, something led to the weekend shift in White House plans.
The Obama team had read the polls. It was obvious that the majority of the American public wanted no part of more U.S. military presence in the Middle East. Members of Congress read the same polls.
At first only the most hard line pro-Israel members of the House and Senate raised their hands to give a yes vote for an attack. A strange assortment of Republicans, Democrats, progressives and conservatives lifted their hands to defiantly vote no to an attack.
Against such odds, it is rare for AIPAC, Israel’s chief Washington lobbying team, to go all out in support of a vote it was going to lose. But AIPAC must have been hearing from Tel Aviv. Israel’s government wanted that military strike.
In Israel’s view, the greatest threat to its own security—or as some see it, to its military control of the Middle East—runs from the road to Damascus straight through to Teheran, the place where Israel wants to convince the world Iran is building its own stock pile of nuclear weapons.
If Iran has plans to develop a nuclear arsenal, and it denies that it does, it would take decades to catch up to the stock pile of nuclear weapons Israel has stored away in a secure desert hiding place.
AIPAC threw its usual caution to the wind and turned up the heat on Congress for a “yes” vote in support of a strike. It did not work, not even with Hillary Clinton leading the charge.
It was time for the White House to give peace a chance.
The shift from “persuade Congress” to another Obama “pause for peace” was launched in London Monday morning when Secretary of State John Kerry made what he attempted to pass off as an off-handed remark.
How off-handed a remark would a U.S. Secretary of State: toss to a hungry band of journalists just hours before the U.S. Congress is set to debate an air strike? It is quite possible the Secretary knew exactly what he was doing, deliberately setting in motion a series of events toward the easing of tensions between the U.S amd Syria.
The series of events reads like a Hollywood script that moves far too fast to be plausible. But they happened.
Monday’s events may have been purely random, events that started like a snowball rolling downhill after a morning speech by Secretary of State Kerry and ending with an history-changing Monday night announcement by Senate leader Harry Reid that he was postponing a Senate vote because of events of the day.
Or was it planned, this shift to peace from John Kerry in London to a proposal by Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister that was quickly adopted by officials in Syria, leaders in Britain, France, and the United Nations?
President Obama told PBS that he had earlier talked to President Putin during the G20 conference held in Russia. The picture above of the President was taken by AFP at the Conference. The picture comes from Ha’aretz. Were seeds planted there for the Monday plan shift?
Of course, there have been few reports of many positive exchanges between Obama and Putin of late. So were these Monday events serendipitous? Might they have been another event on the road to Damascus like the one the Scriptures tell us happened to change the life of Paul of Tarsus?
Or, for the less religiously inclined readers, was the plan shift purely pragmatic, planned by Obama when a congressional rejection of an air strike became imminent?
Whatever lay behind the moment when Harry Reid postponed the Senate vote, the New York Times tells us what events led to Reid’s decision:
Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, said Monday evening that he would not take the procedural steps to force an initial vote on authorization of force Wednesday, slowing Senate consideration of the resolution.
A senior Democratic aide that the developments with the Russian proposal were a significant factor in the delay, which will allow members to consider the plan and also hear from the president, who is scheduled to meet with them at the Capitol on Tuesday in advance of his nationally televised speech to explain his rationale for military force.
Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, made the proposal that could avert a strike earlier in the day, seizing on a seemingly offhand remark by Secretary of State John F. Kerry. Traveling in Britain, Mr. Kerry said that Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, could avoid strikes by agreeing to give up his chemical weapons.
“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 the full and total accounting,” Mr. Kerry said.
Mr. Kerry’s remarks, especially the reference to the short window of time, underscored the urgency of the administration’s preparations for a strike, and it did not appear to signal a shift in policy. The State Department’s spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, later clarified in an e-mail to reporters that Mr. Kerry was simply “making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied using.”
But Mr. Lavrov followed up on the idea, with a proposal that offered a compromise that could avert an American-led strike in response to a poison-gas attack near Damascus last month.
Officials in Syria embraced the idea, as did Britain, France, the United Nations and even some Republican lawmakers in Washington.
Jerusalem’s Ha’aretz made sure its readers were aware that President Obama still has some doubts over what may emerge from the Kerry/Lavrov proposal. As Obama likes to say, “nothing in life is ever certain”.
U.S. President Barack Obama said Monday that while the Russian proposal to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control is “potentially positive,” his administration is looking at it with skepticism.
“I think you have to take it with a grain of salt initially,” he told “NBC Nightly News” in an interview. “This represents a potentially positive development,” he said, adding that Secretary of State John Kerry would explore with Russia how serious the offer is.
Obama gave six television interviews on Monday, and was due to visit the Capitol on Tuesday to make his case to lawmakers from both parties before making a televised address from the White House in the evening. The media blitz was meant to turn up the pressure on Congress to support U.S. military action in Syria.
In an interview that aired simultaneously, the president told CNN that any diplomatic effort to resolve the conflict in Syria must be serious.
“And we don’t want just a stalling or delaying tactic to put off the pressure that we have … right now,” he said.
“We have to maintain this pressure, which is why I’ll still be speaking to the nation tomorrow about why I think this is so important,” he added.
The president added that a breakthrough on control of Syrian chemical weapons would not solve “the underlying terrible conflict inside of Syria. But if we can accomplish this limited goal without taking military action, that would be my preference.”
The Washington Post emphasized that the President saw the events on Monday in a positive light:
President Obama on Monday called a Russian proposal for Syria to turn over control of its chemical weapons to international monitors in order to avoid a military strike a “potentially positive development,” that could represent a “significant breakthrough,” but he said he remains skeptical the Syrian government would follow through on its obligations based on its recent track record.
“Between the statements that we saw from the Russians — the statement today from the Syrians — this represents a potentially positive development,” Obama said in an interview with NBC News, according to a transcript provided by the network. “We are going to run this to ground. [Secretary of State] John Kerry will be talking to his Russian counterpart. We’re going to make sure that we see how serious these proposals are.”
The Post added that the President said in a separate interview with ABC news “if Assad were to give up his chemical weapons, a military strike would “absolutely’ be on pause.
The President paused earlier when he involved the Congress in the decision to attack Syria. Now he appears ready to pause again, “absolutely”.
Whatever the real story is behind Monday’s series of events that unfolded in the direction of peace, we can be thankful that Obama has listened to his own public and is now choosing peaceful “pauses” rather than displays of shock and awesome military power.