Putin offers Obama a way out of Syria's chaos

David Horsey / Los Angeles Times (September 11, 2013)

Vladimir Putin is no hero, but he has, nevertheless, provided a way for President Obama to sidestep a string of bad options for dealing with Bashar Assad and the Syrian government’s despicable use of chemical weapons against its own citizens. By offering to broker a deal that would put Syria’s chemical arsenal under control of international inspectors, the Russian president has forestalled a looming conflict and created a rare opportunity for international cooperation.

On Tuesday night, Obama switched gears in his address to the nation. As expected, he made a strong case for a punishing military strike against Syria, but then he announced postponement of a congressional vote to authorize that strike in order to give his Russian counterpart a chance to persuade Assad to give up control of his chemical weapons.

Right away, there were those who disdained Putin’s offer. Critics -- mostly among Republicans -- said a scheming, ruthless autocrat such as Putin could not be trusted. All over the map on whether they supported an attack on Syria, the one thing these naysayers could agree on is that Obama is a fool to let Putin manipulate the situation in order to benefit Russia and Russia’s client, the Syrian regime.

There may be some wishful thinking going on among those who are relieved that a diplomatic resolution to the crisis may be possible, but they have a far better grasp of what is possible in foreign affairs than the Republican crowd who criticize Obama. Those critics seem to believe that the dynamics of international relations are the same as the rules of a school playground. They talk about getting tough, not showing weakness and standing up to bullies, but have no grasp of the fact that sometimes things are not as simple as a brawl behind the gym.

Yes, Putin is a coldhearted character who will do almost anything to preserve his power and advance his nation’s interests. But he is not an unhinged nutcase like North Korea’s Kim Jong Un or Iran’s recently departed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In the parlance of diplomacy, Putin is a rational actor. We may not like him, but, when our interests coincide, we ought to be able to reach mutually beneficial agreements with him.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, Americans have battled with shadowy fanatics who prefer death to compromise. This experience may have dimmed our memory of the many decades U.S. governments negotiated agreements with unpleasant Soviet leaders and, thereby, avoided another world war. Putin is hardly the worst person an American president ever had to work with.

There are abundant factors that might scuttle Putin’s plan, and Obama could well find himself back to selling the military option in a few weeks. However, the Russians have motivation to make it work. They do not want the Assad regime to be toppled in the wake of a U.S. attack. At the same time, they are no more anxious than Americans to see chemical weapons proliferate and fall into the hands of terrorists. And, after years of humiliation following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, they want to restore their position as a major player in world affairs.

These goals are not out of line with American interests. As abhorrent as the Assad government is, there is a strong possibility that its successor could be worse. A precipitous change in the Syrian power equation might only benefit Al Qaeda. Keeping chemical weapons in check is the No. 1 stated justification for the proposed strike, so a scheme to take Syria’s weapons off the table is a huge plus, even if it helps Assad in the short run. And having the Russians play a constructive role, for once, is good for everyone. Perhaps they’d start doing it more often.

International relations is not a game of winner take all. There are moments when smart leaders can craft agreements that benefit both sides. Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev proved that in the 1980s. Perhaps Obama and Putin can prove it now.