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In the dramas of Greek and Roman antiquity, playwrights who found that they had backed their characters into hopeless situations would sometimes deploy a plot device called a Deus ex Machina. From out of nowhere, a god would be lowered onto the stage in a crane-like machine; the god would then set matters right.
Neither Vladimir Putin nor Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, look much like Greek gods (Putin’s vanity notwithstanding), but Barack Obama, having painted himself into a corner as hopeless as any of Euripides’ tragic figures, would be well advised, at this point, to offer them both a sacrifice or two – not out of gratitude (since they did make him look a fool), but because, as well as any god could, they got him out of an otherwise hopeless situation, saving the day for the world.
The Putin-Lavrov fix could still fall through, of course; we must never “misunderestimate,” as George Bush would say, the ineptitude of American diplomacy in the Clinton-Kerry era. But maybe, just maybe, Obama now won’t throw a flame into the combustible cauldron that the Syrian civil war has become.
Maybe that serial violator of international law now won’t take it upon himself to punish the Syrian government — “the Assad regime,” as our politicians and their media flacks call it — for (probably) using chemical weapons against rebellious Syrians (and Islamists from other countries).
The use of chemical nerve-agents in combat is banned under international law, as well it should be. The many horrific weapons that have come on line since the First World War – among others, bombers, cruise missiles, chemicals that burn human skin, depleted uranium shells and, of course, weaponized drones should be banned as well.
And then there are nuclear weapons, genuine “weapons of mass destruction” – more horrifying by far than all the others combined.
Fetishizing a prohibition enacted nearly a century ago, and then stopping moral progress at that point, is, to put it mildly, strange. But never mind; unlike feigned moral indignation, logical and moral consistency is not our President’s forte.
There is, it seems, good, but inconclusive, evidence that the Syrian government did indeed violate the chemical warfare ban. There is also evidence that some of the rebel groups fighting the government did too. It bears notice that they have much to gain if the world, or at least Americans and Europeans, think that their hands are clean, and that Assad is guilty as sin.
In any case, Obama’s plan was to launch an unprovoked and unsanctioned war against Syria, a sovereign state.
According to the 1945 Nuremburg Charter, initiating a war of aggression is “the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”
In other words, Obama wanted to punish a possible war crime by committing a far graver one.
The incoherence of this position dwarfs even the preposterousness of the idea that he, of all people — or the United States, of all countries — has standing to enforce international law.
Is Obama aware of this? He could be; unlike his predecessor, he is not ignorant, dimwitted or obtuse. But there was no sign of any such awareness in his televised September 10 address from the East Room of the White House.
It is therefore fair to say that the blatant untenability of his position had nothing to do with the welcome flip-flop he used that occasion to announce. The factors behind it were almost certainly more mundane.
Perhaps he was worried that the facts about the events that were to be his pretext for attacking Syria would come back to bite him – if not right away, then soon enough to mar not only his legacy but also what remains of his presidency. What happened to George W. Bush could happen to him as well.
Perhaps it bothered him that public opinion is overwhelmingly opposed. To be sure, he and his minions are as contemptuous of public opinion as are the capitalists they serve. Still, there are limits.
And he must have been worried that, having asked for Congressional approval, he would lose big time when the House and Senate finally vote. Then he would either have to acquiesce, or else ride out a Constitutional crisis.
Inasmuch as the whole reason for threatening Syria was for him, and for the empire he leads, to save face, acquiescence was not a palatable option. The alternative, though, must have looked even worse to a politician who thrives on the adulation of willfully blind liberals with beautiful souls.
By the time Lavrov was dropped onto the stage, it had become clear to almost everybody that the march to war was all about “credibility,” and nothing more. Outside Obama’s inner circle of addle-brained humanitarian interventionists, there are none so foolish as to think that the point was to help the Syrian people or, for that matter, to uphold international norms.
There are no words he could have uttered from the East Room Tuesday night that would have changed anybody’s mind on what is so overwhelmingly obvious.
Of course, we can only speculate about what went on behind the scenes. We won’t know for sure until memoirs are written or until the good example of Edward Snowden leads someone with access to relevant documents to inform the public. All we can say for now is that, miraculously, Obama was offered a way out of the hole he had dug for himself.
He has no choice now but to take advantage of it.
* * *
Russian diplomacy, these days, is plainly better than ours by orders of magnitude. Over there, they know how to seize opportunities, and make things happen; they rely on their wits. Our leaders only know how to botch things up. If they get by at all, it is on dumb luck.
They are way ahead of us too in respecting internationally recognized rights and duties. Indeed, it was because Russia granted Snowden humanitarian asylum, as they had ample reason to do under international law, that a very pissed-off Obama conspicuously rebuffed earlier Russian efforts at finding a diplomatic solution to the situation he created when he mouthed off about a “red line” Bashar Al-Assad dare not cross.
The information Snowden provided revealed the extent to which the surveillance state has metastasized in the Age of Obama, but that is not all Snowden did to incur Obama’s ire. He embarrassed the Obama regime – or rather “administration,” as our ideologists and media flunkies call it.
In Obama’s view, this was unforgiveable. Therefore, any state that wouldn’t turn Snowden over to American “justice” was to be bullied into submission — or shunned, if that was impossible, as it plainly was with Russia as the state that rose to the occasion.
But Obama’s petulant, self-righteous attitude turned out to be yet another example of his ineptitude; yet again, he painted himself into a corner.
In coming to his, and the world’s, rescue, the Russians have so far shown impressive tact. Along with other facets of the art of diplomacy, that is a virtue unknown in the Clinton-Kerry Department of State.
Obama’s spinmeisters and media cheerleaders are now hard at work depicting John Kerry’s thoughtless gaffe — an offhand sarcastic comment — as the opening towards a “solution.”
They are claiming, as Obama himself did Tuesday night, that it is his willingness to use force – in plain English, his warmongering – that is bringing “the Assad regime” to its knees. They even hint that this was the plan all along. Does their preposterousness know no limits?
The Kremlin has so far let them get away with this nonsense, even suggesting that the idea that Syria’s chemical weapons be placed under international control and then destroyed had come up in discussions between Obama and Putin at the G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg and in Kerry-Lavrov encounters before and since.
It probably did; it has probably come up many times. But it was never seriously considered – certainly not by our drone-wielding President, a man who plainly cares not a whit about saving children or maintaining international norms. For Obama, it is about maintaining credibility; end of story. The rest is public relations blather.
Since the Russians understand full well that if Obama doesn’t save face, all is lost, why wouldn’t they let him claim undeserved bragging rights? If that is what is needed to forestall the disasters that would follow from the “limited” military strike on Syria that he was about to launch, then so be it. Let him have his Mission Accomplished moment; no one will believe it anyway.
Putin won this round and no matter how Obama apologists try to spin it, their man lost — big time.
Maybe the next time Washington gets an urge to reshape the Middle East, this will cause the instigators – the neocons and humanitarian interventionists and the militaristic, imperialist politicians in their thrall — to have second thoughts. If it does, then something good will have come out of this whole sorry episode.
ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).