"To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war."
-- Winston Churchill, June 26, 1954
Before you make the mistake of taking President Obama's most strident critics regarding the Syrian deal too seriously, ponder this: With few exceptions, those calling the Russian-American agreement to eliminate Bashar al-Assad's nerve gas arsenal a capitulation, a sellout, and a shameful retreat also think bombing Damascus wouldn't have been nearly enough.
Nothing short of a boots-on-the-ground American invasion of Syria would have satisfied these jokers. Prominent among them is Sen. John McCain, who views the diplomatic breakthrough as "an act of provocative weakness on America's part."
McCain, who has vigorously supported all nine of the nation's last three wars on about 316 TV talk shows, is never happy unless the United States is attacking somebody. Only violent solutions strike him as realistic. That's probably the single biggest reason he never became president.
Then there's Eliot A. Cohen, founding father of the Project for a New American Century, a now-defunct Washington pressure group whose messianic schemes for a U.S. empire stretching from the Mediterranean to Afghanistan inspired the Iraq War. Featuring such luminaries as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, to these geniuses, overthrowing Saddam Hussein was only the beginning. Next on their agenda was Iran, in case you wonder why the mad ayatollahs have been tinkering with nukes.
So anyway, just as President Obama was getting ready to ask Congress to endorse a punitive strike against Syrian chemical weapon sites, Cohen published a Washington Post column scolding Americans for their cowardice. The families of the war dead, he allowed, were entitled to their sorrow.
"But for the great mass of the American public," he wrote, "for their leaders and the elites who shape public opinion, 'war-weariness' is unearned cant, unworthy of a serious nation and dangerous in a violent world ... Americans can change the channel if they find the images too disturbing."
Got that, citizens? Shut up, pay your taxes and avert your eyes.
Next, the Obama administration pulled a large Russian rabbit out of its hat, leaving the neocons feeling foolish. For all the hugger-mugger about "red-lines" and the White House's odd decision to position a naval task force within striking range of Damascus before deciding to ask congressional permission, the end result was nevertheless remarkable.
Clumsy? Definitely. But it's not a Bruce Willis movie; it's foreign policy.
"By hook or by crook," Kevin Drum writes, "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) (did) it all while keeping military pressure as an active option, but without ever firing a shot."
In other words, for all the nonsensical talk of "appeasement," the very crafty president Putin and the Syrian dictator now own this deal. Meanwhile, U.S. military options remain unchanged. President Obama has bought himself considerable freedom of action.
Mike Tomasky has it right: "If Assad is mad enough to use (chemical weapons) again, Obama won't mess with Congress or even Russia. He'll be credited by most observers ... for having shown restraint the first time, and more people will agree at that point that Assad must be punished."
Then there's Charles Krauthammer, the Post columnist who accuses Obama of "epic incompetence," complaining that the Russians prefer to keep Bashar al-Assad in power. He worries that "Assad is the key link in the anti-Western Shiite crescent stretching from Tehran through Damascus and Beirut to the Mediterranean."
Hmm ... Isn't something missing here? Let's go to the maps. It's roughly 900 miles from Tehran to Damascus via, oh yeah, Baghdad. See, it's precisely the U.S. invasion of Iraq championed by Krauthammer and his chums that created this supposedly scary alliance. Sectarian strife among Sunni and Shiite Muslims has erupted there at irregular intervals for almost 1,400 years. Shouldn't these brilliant thinkers have thought of that before now?
So what do the Russians want? In a word, stability. Unlike the U.S., Russia has a large Muslim minority. Roughly one in six Russians is Muslim. Like the Tsarnaev bothers of Boston, nearly all are Sunni. What Putin definitely doesn't want is Chechen separatists getting their hands on nerve gas. Driving overland, Syria's roughly as close to Chechnya as to Iran.
Can Putin be trusted? To do what's good for Russia, yes. As President Obama explained to George Stephanopoulos, the Cold War is over. "I don't think that Mr. Putin has the same values that we do," he said. "But what I've also said to him directly is that we both have an interest in preventing chaos, we both have an interest in preventing terrorism. The situation in Syria right now is untenable."
And he also quoted Ronald Reagan: "Trust, but verify."
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner.