September is when things fall into their proper place. Vacations are over. The kids go back to school, and for adults, the dull routine of work resumes. Baseball starts to wrap up and the long college and professional football seasons begin – the serious sports. Congress returns from its long summer recess too, and all the same exact arguments about everything resume almost in midsentence, as if no time has passed at all. Summer had been an anomaly, as it always is. Everything is now as it should be. It’s now the season of the expected, of more of the same. Do you remember the twenty-first night of September? Yep, out here that rather long-in-the-tooth disco-funk group from the seventies, Earth, Wind and Fire, asked that musical question at the Hollywood Bowl on the other side of the hill out back – three triumphant sold-out nights there – amazing everyone, as of not a day had passed in all these years. The reviews were stunning. Things had fallen back in their proper place.
Yes, things returned to normal:
A gunman killed a dozen people as the workday began at the Washington Navy Yard on Monday, creating an improbable moment of horror at a military facility with armed guards at every gate and leaving investigators seeking clues about what spurred the attack.
This was a surprise, and not a surprise. It was time for another workplace massacre – not an act of terrorism, just an unhinged man with a high-power assault rifle, and a shotgun and handgun too this time. We’ve come to expect such things periodically, although not a few miles from the White House and certainly not at a major military facility with armed guards at every gate. That was a twist, but this will be followed by the usual talk about universal background checks for gun purchases, and then the National Rifle Association convincing everyone in Congress, but no one in the general public, that those background checks would have done no good in this case, and that such checks would mean the end of all freedoms for all Americans anyway, and then they’ll threaten to stop funding everyone’s political careers, Republican and Democrat, as they have done for decades – and nothing will come of it. A few will say that had every worker at every cubicle at the Washington Navy Yard been packing serious heat this wouldn’t have happened – everyone would have shot the bad guy dead before he even got his first shot off – but nothing will come of that either. The idea that everyone – students and teachers too – would be safe at all times if everyone, at all times, were heavily armed, and ready to shoot dead anyone who even looks at them funny, is beyond absurd. There’s a reason we have laws against such things, except in Florida. There’s a reason that George Zimmerman is not a hero in anyone’s eyes, save for every host and commentator at Fox News. Nothing will come of this latest workplace massacre, as everyone knows.
That led David Frum to write a series of tweets explaining the rules here, the rules on how it’s now, once again, important that we all respect the feelings of America’s gun enthusiasts, by following these simple rules of etiquette:
Rule 1: It is “ghoulish” to suggest in any way that the easy availability of guns might in any way enable gun slaughter.
Rule 2: Gun crime in the president’s hometown proves that guns anywhere else are no fit topic of conversation.
Rule 3: All gun owners are to be complimented as responsible and law-abiding until they personally have hurt themselves or somebody else
Rule 4: Any attempt to stop mass casualty shootings is “political.” Allowing them to continue is “non-political.”
Rule 5: Gun ownership is essential to freedom, as in Serbia and Guatemala. Gun restrictions lead to tyranny, as in Australia & Canada.
That sums it up nicely, and it’s easy to see that Frum, Bush’s former speechwriter, who gave us that famous Axis of Evil turn of phrase, is now fully disengaged from the Republican Party. He became fed up with these folks long ago, and they with him, but he captures the feel of all this. Things have returned to normal. Always expect the expected. You won’t be disappointed, or you’ll be perpetually disappointed, as usual. It’s September after all.
That doesn’t explain why Syria is over. Syria has agreed to it destroy its chemical weapons and has submitted the paperwork to become a signatory to the treaty about those, joining the rest of the world on this matter – so we got what we said we wanted – putting a stop to that Assad jerk using those chemical weapons on men, women and children. We got even more. If and when those chemical weapons are actually destroyed, there’ll be nothing at all that can fall into the hands of al-Qaeda and such folks. And the American people can relax too – we won’t be easing into one more war in the Middle East, where we quickly toss out that one very bad guy and have to stick around for eight or ten years until we find someone to run the place, with our folks being shot dead and blown up day after day, because no one wants us there. We won, without firing a shot. Obama and Kerry said that Syria would not have done this if we hadn’t threatened force, but the fact remains, we did nothing. We didn’t shoot dead anyone who even looked at us funny. We didn’t shoot anyone.
People are still trying to figure out how this happened, and Kevin Drum weighs in with this preamble:
I keep hearing people talk about how hard it will be to verify that Bashar al-Assad has really given up all his chemical weapons under the agreement reached this weekend with the Russians. Fair enough. It will be hard. But then I keep hearing about how this will be “just like Saddam” and the way he tricked the UN inspectors. What am I missing here? Hans Blix’s team certainly had issues with Saddam’s level of cooperation, but in the end there was no trickery. It’s just that Saddam had no weapons. That’s why it was hard to get a full accounting from him. …
So what is all this renewed Saddam talk about? Are the hawks just hoping that we’ve all forgotten there was no WMD to find in the first place?
Drum is also puzzled by all of John McCain’s outrage – this agreement will be viewed as “an act of provocative weakness on America’s part” and that’s beyond horrible. Maybe it’s like any workplace or school or theater massacre, where the fact that no one else was armed and willing and happy to shoot was the provocative weakness that caused the massacre in the first place, which leads Drum to add this:
Has there ever been any American action overseas short of a full-on invasion that McCain hasn’t viewed as an act of provocative weakness? I can’t think of any, but I suppose there must have been at least one or two. Somebody help me out here.
No one has helped him out yet. McCain is who he is. Expect the expected. But Drum didn’t expect this:
I don’t think there’s much question that President Obama initially failed to grasp the level of opposition to his plan for air strikes, and that this forced him into a series of clumsy reverses and foolish statements. It was a pretty embarrassing fubar.
But despite the endless petulance from the usual suspects, the past two weeks have been different. By hook or by crook, Obama (a) raised the issue of Assad’s chemical weapons to an international level, (b) got Vladimir Putin (!) to take a lead role in reining them in, (c) got Assad to join the chemical weapons ban and agree to give up his stockpiles, and (d) do it all while keeping military pressure as an active option, but without ever firing a shot. Carrying out the inspections and destruction of Assad’s weapons will obviously be a Herculean task, but still, this is a good start.
So here’s what I want to know: was this all just a lucky accident?
That’s the question of the day, and there’s no easy answer:
I’ve heard a couple of rumors lately that John Kerry’s “off the cuff” remark about Assad giving up his chemical weapons was not unintended at all. In fact, he was authorized by the White House to bring it up when an opportunity presented itself, and that opportunity came last Monday. Kerry’s actual choice of words may have been a little awkward, but it was no accident. Putin expected it; Kerry knew what he was doing; Lavrov called to coordinate a few hours afterward; and the Russians then made their proposal. But this has all been kept under strict lock and key because the whole point was to make this a Putin initiative, one that he’d have ownership of. If it’s his baby, he’ll fight for it instead of coming up with endless reasons to nitpick an American proposal to death.
Is this how things went down? I have no idea. But I’d sure like to find out. If it’s true, it would be one of the most fascinating pieces of diplomatic legerdemain in recent years. And it would demonstrate an almost unheard-of willingness in a U.S. president to accept mountains of abuse because secrecy was essential to getting the job done.
So: crackpot rumor or actual fact?
No one knows. Obama’s efforts were a mess, but a brilliant mess, or not a mess at all but planned carefully, but kept secret so Putin wouldn’t back out or something. If this was a step-by-step intentional thing he sure had everyone fooled, and Obama had a snappy answer to his critics calling him a bumbling fool:
Had we rolled out something that was very smooth and disciplined and linear, they would have graded it well, even if it was a disastrous policy. We know that, because that’s exactly how they graded the Iraq war.
Ouch! Do you want something smooth and disciplined and linear, or do you want something that works? Smooth and disciplined and linear got us Iraq, guys. Obama’s critics on Syria have berated him for how bad this all looked, but have never said what they would have done in each particular moment, so the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent offers this:
What this whole dodge comes down to is that one can’t admit to thinking that going to Congress and pursuing a diplomatic solution are the right goals for Obama to pursue, without undermining one’s ability to criticize Obama for betraying abstract qualities we all know a president is “supposed” to possess. It’s simply presumed to be a positive when a president shows “strength” by “not changing his mind,” and it’s simply presumed to be a negative when he shows “weakness” by changing course in midstream. That’s “indecisive,” and that’s bad, you see. But it’s a lot harder to sustain these “rules” if you admit you agree with the actual goals Obama is pursuing with these changes of mind. After all, if Obama’s changes of mind have now pointed him towards goals you agree with, then how was changing course a bad thing?
People should come clean about what they really believe about all this stuff.
Andrew Sullivan is on the same page:
It’s been awesome to watch today as all the jerking knees quieted a little and all the instant judgments of the past month ceded to a deeper acknowledgment (even among Republicans) of what had actually been substantively achieved: something that, if it pans out, might be truly called a breakthrough – not just in terms of Syria, but also in terms of a better international system, and in terms of Iran.
Obama has managed to insist on his red line on Syria’s chemical weapons, forcing the world to grapple with a new breach of international law, while also avoiding being dragged into Syria’s civil war. But he has also strengthened the impression that he will risk a great deal to stop the advance of WMDs (which presumably includes Iran’s nukes). After all, his announcement of his intent to strike Assad was a real risk to him and to the US. Now, there’s a chance that he can use that basic understanding of his Syria policy – and existing agreement on chemical weapons – to forge a potential grand bargain with Iran’s regime. If that is the eventual end-game, it would be historic.
To put it plainly: Syria is the proof of principle for an agreement with Iran. And an agreement with Iran – that keeps its nuclear program reliably civil and lifts sanctions – is the Holy Grail for this administration – and for American foreign policy in the 21st Century.
Sullivan also argues it was Putin who blinked, who actually agreed to enforce Washington’s policy, which led Obama to say this:
I welcome him being involved. I welcome him saying, “I will take responsibility for pushing my client, the Assad regime, to deal with these chemical weapons.”
It’s all good, except at Time’s Swampland, Jay Newton-Small worries a bit about this:
The framework did not address Assad’s demand in a Russian television interview on Friday that in exchange for his cooperation the U.S. stop arming the Syrian rebels. And Assad could drag the process out for years, as former Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein did, if at any point he stops cooperating. Syria experts worry that the deal could empower Assad and undermine the opposition. “If [Assad] becomes our interlocutor how do we square that with our statement that he’s no longer legitimate? How do we square that with our statements that he has no future role in Syria?” says Steve Heydemann, a Syria expert at the U.S. Institute for Peace. “In effect this reinforces his future role in Syria.”
Yes, Assad will remain, but our immediate objective was not to remove him just yet. That’s for later, but in the Atlantic, Shadi Hamid argues that just won’t wash:
For his part, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is effectively being rewarded for the use of chemical weapons, rather than “punished” as originally planned.
He has managed to remove the threat of U.S. military action while giving very little up in return. Obscured in the debate of the past few weeks is the fact that chemical weapons were never central to the Syrian regime’s military strategy. It doesn’t need to use chemical weapons. In other words, even if the regime does comply with inspections (which could drag on for months if not years), it will have little import for the broader civil war – which Assad remains intent on winning.
Marc Champion has a response to that:
The odds of limited U.S. missile strikes ending the slaughter in Syria or toppling Assad are slim-to-zero. In 1999, 78 days of bombing Serbia didn’t remove Slobodan Milosevic, another monster. It took that long to persuade him to pull troops out of Kosovo. … The anger that Hamid and others feel over the U.S.-Russian deal is a displaced fury over the failure of the international community to do zip to end this conflict. That failure is set to continue, with or without airstrikes.
Obama did what he could. America did what it could, and in the New Yorker, John Cassidy offers this:
For the next few months, at least, events are likely to proceed along three tracks – none of which involve direct U.S. military action. Inside Syria, Assad will continue his efforts to bludgeon the rebels and their supporters, using conventional high explosives and bullets rather than mustard gas and sarin. Meanwhile, and probably under the auspices of the United Nations, the process of identifying, verifying, and securing at least some of the Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles will begin. Having gone this far, Putin will certainly insure that Assad does enough to prevent an immediate collapse in the disarmament effort. Finally, and most significantly, diplomatic efforts to end the civil war will intensify.
In short, don’t expect too much too fast. Patience is called for here, although Sullivan adds this:
Unless you are the rebels and thought you could get the West to ensure your victory – something that would bring with it another host of questions the neocons haven’t bothered to think through, just as they never thought through the end-game in Iraq.
Yeah, we tried that once. It didn’t work out, and Peter Beinart suggests that Obama has something far more ambitious in mind:
Since Syria is caught in the middle of an American-Iranian (and to a lesser degree, American-Russian) cold war, it’s worth remembering what ended the last Cold War. In the 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev decided that the Soviet Union could no longer afford to prop up unpopular regimes in Eastern Europe. But to cut Eastern Europe free, Gorbachev had to answer hard-liners who had long argued that the USSR needed a ring of clients to protect it against another attack from the West. That’s why Ronald Reagan’s willingness to embrace Gorbachev and negotiate far-reaching arms-control deals – despite bitter criticism from conservative politicians and pundits – proved so important. As Reagan himself argued, “I might have helped him see that the Soviet Union had less to fear from the West than he thought, and that the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe wasn’t needed for the security of the Soviet Union.” By helping show Gorbachev that he could safely release Eastern Europe, Reagan helped end the Cold War. And when the Cold war ended, so did civil wars across the globe because the U.S. and USSR no longer felt that their own security required arming one side.
This could be a Reagan at Reykjavik moment:
Today, President Obama’s real strategic and moral imperative is not killing a few Syrian grunts to punish Assad for using chemical weapons. It is ending the Middle Eastern cold war that fuels Syria’s savage civil war, just as the global Cold war once fueled savage civil wars in Angola, El Salvador, and Vietnam. It’s possible that strengthening Syria’s rebels and sanctioning Iran could further that goal, just as Reagan’s military buildup showed Moscow the cost of its Cold War with the United States, but only if such efforts are coupled with a diplomatic push that offers Iran’s leaders a completely different relationship with the United States, one that offers them security and status absent a nuclear weapon and no longer requires them to cling to Bashar Assad.
Obama should be Reagan. Talk, don’t posture, and don’t attack – find a win-win solution. That’s what ended the cold war, and if Beinart’s assessment is right, Republican heads are exploding right now. Didn’t Reagan rip off his shirt and tear down the Berlin Wall with his bare hands, all by himself, his muscles rippling in the sunshine? They do forget that Reykjavik summit– Reagan’s idea was the potential elimination of all nuclear weapons, period, which drove the hard-right up the wall, and Gorbachev was fine with the idea. That never happened – there were too many side-issues – but all intermediate-range nukes were soon gone forever. Something like that could be in the works now, leading to the end of our new Cold War.
The moment may be now, Der Spiegel reports here that the new Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, is preparing to announce a plan to “decommission the Fordo enrichment plant and allow international inspectors to monitor the removal of the centrifuges” there and elsewhere:
Rouhani reportedly intends to announce the details of the offer, perhaps already during his speech before the United Nations General Assembly at the end of the month. His foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, will meet Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s top diplomat, in New York next Sunday and give her a rough outline of the deal. If he were to make such wide-ranging concessions, President Rouhani would initiate a negotiating process that could conceivably even lead to a resumption of bilateral diplomatic relations with Washington.
Other developments seem promising as well. On Monday, Iran’s new nuclear energy chief Ali Akbar Salehi reportedly told the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) member states that the country was ready to “enhance and expand” cooperation. Additionally, US President Barack Obama revealed on Sunday in an interview with broadcaster ABC that he and Rouhani had exchanged letters, though he did not discuss the content of their correspondence.
This, if true, is a huge gamble by Rouhani, and requires a matching gamble from Obama, but there it is – the totally unexpected. Rouhani, like Gorbachev long ago, is obviously signaling a willingness to talk, and Kevin Drum’s original question can be asked again. Was this all just a lucky accident? The only answer is another question. Does it matter?
What this calls for is abandoning the whole September thing. Yeah, everything falls back into its normal place each September, for better or worse, but sometimes it doesn’t. The unexpected sometimes does happen. Why not go with it?