The State Department claims that Secretary of State John Kerry discussed the Assad chemical weapons disarmament proposal with his Russian counterpart Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last week. And the White House says that President Obama and Vladimir Putin discussed it during the G-20 Summit.
But that was on Tuesday. On Monday, they were singing a different tune.
Recall that the first the world heard of this proposal was when John Kerry made an offhand - perhaps even a saracastic comment - at a London press conference with British Foreign Secretary Hague:
Speaking in London next to British Foreign Secretary William Hague on Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry said that perhaps the military strike around which the administration has been painfully circling for weeks could be avoided if Bashar al-Assad can "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 a full and total accounting for that."
The fact that Kerry immediately followed with, "But he isn't about to do it, and it can't be done, obviously," didn't seem to bother anyone. (Probably because they were focusing on his other slip-up: calling the promised strikes "unbelievably small.")
Indeed, the State Department immediately walked back Kerry's comment:
Kerry "was making a rhetorical statement about a scenario that we find highly unlikely," State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf told reporters yesterday.
Harf said the administration would "take a hard look" at the proposal but that "we have serious and deep skepticism that the Syrian regime would actually do this." She presented the plan as purely a Russian proposal, saying that "the secretary was not making a proposal."
A "rhetorical statement" that wasn't a "proposal"?
Meanwhile, the White House was falling all over itself to distance it from Kerry's throwaway line:
Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken echoed Harf in the White House briefing on Monday, telling reporters that "I believe [Kerry] was answering questions, speaking hypothetically about what if Assad were to do this."
A senior administration official even described Kerry's statement as a "major goof" to CNN.
Only in Obama's America would a "major goof" become national policy.
Blinkin went even further:
Asked if this was a White House plan that Kerry had served up in London, Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken was unequivocal. "No, no, no," he said. "We literally just heard about this as you did some hours ago."
Really? Here's Kerry testifying at a Congressional hearing less than 24 hours after Blinken made that statement:
"I had some conversations about this with my counterpart from Russia last week," Secretary of State John Kerry said during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday, referring to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. "President Putin raised the issue with President Obama at St. Petersburg. President Obama directed us to try to continue to talk and see if it is possible. So it is not something that - you know, suddenly emerged, though it did publicly. But it cannot be allowed to be a delay."
Later, under questioning by Rep. Hank Johnson, Kerry said he had not made a mistake when he suggested the proposal in a press conference in London on Monday.
"I didn't misspeak," Kerry said. "I was asked about it. I responded because I was asked."
It is entirely possible that Kerry did talk about eliminating Assad's chemical weapons with Lavrov and the idea was raised in Obama-Putin conversations. But it is painfully obvious from the initial reaction at the State Department and the White House that it was never - never - considered a serious proposal. It's the kind of thing diplomats talk about in the abstract - like nuclear disarmament or world peace. But Putin leapt upon Kerry's comment and put some meat on a throwaway proposal. The speed with which the Syrians got on board makes you think that Putin and Assad had gamed this scenario out in advance and was hoping Kerry would step into the trap.
And a trap, it is:
There are two clear winners in this slow-motion train wreck, and they are not Obama or Kerry. They are Assad and Putin. Both wanted, for their own reasons, to avert a military strike, and a military strike was averted. Putin insisted on a diplomatic solution while doing everything to make a diplomatic solution impossible, and now he gets his phony, unenforceable diplomatic solution. Assad wanted to go on killing his opposition, and he will continue to do so.Obama, on the other hand, found himself constantly check-mated, either by his own hand, or, this time, by Kerry's. First, he drew a red line on chemical weapons, seemingly by accident. Then, he all but ignored chemical weapons use by Assad until the evidence forced itself on the world. Then he agonized on whether to act, while Dempsey and the Pentagon rolled him, leaking their military plans to anyone who would listen, "probably," said one insider, "because they didn't want to act." Then, he talked about how limited the strikes would be, all while Assad moved his men and his guns into residential areas and the Russians moved their ships in. Then, out of nowhere, he decided to take it to Congress. "The president says that he's going to launch strikes and then, suddenly, he's going to Congress. It's probably one of the more incredible things I've ever seen," McCain told me. "We were all dumbfounded," said another Senate staffer.
As it stands now, Russia and France have taken the lead on working out a plan to get Assad to hand over his chemical weapons, a lead Obama seems all too happy to relinquish. Hammering out the details will take a some time, and, while they're at it, Assad will still have his chemical weapons but will no longer be under the threat of a U.S. military strike. (Who knows if he'll use them, but he certainly hasn't let up on the conventional shelling.) Putin has succeeded in throwing sand in the gears of the American political process and separating the U.S. from its allies, and the current American handwringing over Syria seems likely to grind on for weeks. And a pro-Assad paper ran with the following headline this morning: "Moscow and Damascus Pull the Rug Out From Under the Feet of Obama."
Like Obama claiming that the threat of a military strike forced Assad to give up his weapons - despite Kerry making another gaffe by claiming the strike would be "incredibly small" - the White House is spinning the origins of this proposal to portray themselves as major players in this drama. They're not. This is Vladimir Putin's show and Obama and Kerry are just bit players.