Syria Chemical Arms Deal May Let Obama Focus on Domestic Issues

The agreement between the U.S. and Russia to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons hands President Barack Obama a diplomatic achievement without U.S. armed forces firing a shot.

If the deal survives political and practical hurdles, it could also wind down a drama that has put the Democratic president and his threat to attack Syria at odds with most of the U.S. public and many of his supporters.

After losing the first two weeks of September to the crisis, the Obama administration may now be able to address domestic priorities such as a budget agreement, raising the debt ceiling, and nomination of a Federal Reserve chairman.

“The most important political effect of the agreement is to knock the issue down a few pegs on the political agenda,” said John Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College, in Claremont, California.

Obama welcomed the deal as “an important, concrete step toward the goal of moving Syria’s chemical weapons under international control,” even as he said in a statement that the U.S. “remains prepared to act” if diplomacy fails.

“The Syria problem appears to be off to the side now,” said Steve Elmendorf, a lobbyist and former Democratic congressional aide with close ties to the administration.

Domestic Priorities

“Now they have the time” to nominate a Federal Reserve Board chairman, a post for which former Obama National Economic Council director Lawrence Summers and Fed Vice Chairman Janet Yellen are top candidates, Elmendorf said. “My guess is they’ll do it pretty soon.”

Obama has scheduled a speech tomorrow at the White House to mark the five-year anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., which helped trigger the financial crisis. He’ll also talk about economic gains since then, according to a White House statement.

While critics will portray Obama’s maneuvering on Syria as a series of vacillations, the public will see the outcome as a victory, so long as the poison gas attacks there end, said Andrew Kohut, founding director of the Pew Research Center in Washington.

“No more chemical attacks would equal achievement,” he said. “And vice versa.”

“It’s the bottom line, not so much how you got there, for typical voters,” said Kohut, who has been involved in polling and public opinion research for more than 20 years.

‘Strengthens’ Obama

The public is likely to give Obama credit simply because he was able to avert, at least for the time being, U.S. military involvement, he said.

“For now, the agreement strengthens Obama, with a public opposed to force,” Kohut said.

Even with Syria’s cooperation, it will be difficult to find, secure and destroy the country’s chemical weapons in the middle of a civil war that’s killed more than 100,000 people in the past 2 1/2 years.

The Pentagon issued a statement saying U.S. forces remain poised to attack because “the credible threat of military force has been key to driving diplomatic progress.”

“The problem remains to what degree will the Assad regime carry it out and how will it be implemented,” Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in an e-mail. Fred Hof, who last year served as Obama’s ambassador-at-large on the Syria crisis, described President Bashar al-Assad’s regime as “the essence of untrustworthiness.”

Many in Washington also doubt Assad’s fractured opposition, which includes backers of al-Qaeda.

Diplomatic Solution

“A diplomatic solution to eliminate his chemical weapons capabilities is preferable to a military one, and is doubly important because it would also remove the possibility of the weapons falling into opposition hands if Assad loses power,” Senator Angus King, a political independent from Maine, said in a statement e-mailed to reporters.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California applauded Obama for “significant progress in our efforts to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction, a pillar of our national security, through diplomatic efforts.”

Administration officials have stressed that the agreement, and Russia’s active role, happened only because because of Obama’s threat to use military force against Syria. They said that, had Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to the Assad regime to give up its chemical weapons, the Russian leader could have done so 6 months or a year ago.

Osama bin Laden

Yet the episode could damage public perceptions of Obama’s handling of foreign affairs, said David Gergen a communications adviser to four Republican and Democratic presidents, including Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

The president’s most visible actions in foreign affairs so far have been the winding down of unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

In contrast, Obama’s movement, from condemnation of the Aug. 21 alleged poison gas attack to a surprise announcement that he would seek congressional approval before a military strike, and then his difficulty securing support among lawmakers, provides fodder for critics of his leadership, Gergen said.

“There’s a narrative out there in contrast to bin Laden, which was stunningly well-handled, that this was amateurish,” Gergen said. “That will continue to be a reference point in conversations.”

U.S. Credibility Hurt

Gergen predicted “a lot of skepticism on the right, if not downright hostility” because of Putin’s role in the agreement and the perception it is a compromise with Syria’s Assad. Still, he said, “it will be hard for some of the leaders on the Republican side in Congress to be too harsh because they said, ‘good idea, pursue the agreement.’”

Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressed reservations in a statement on the agreement, saying “the administration’s handling of this crisis has hurt U.S. credibility.”

“Absent the threat of force, it’s unclear to me how Syrian compliance will be possible” Corker said, though he added “I remain supportive of a strong diplomatic solution.”

Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, both Republicans who have sought more forceful U.S. backing of Syrian rebels, predicted in a joint statement that “our friends and enemies will take the same lessons from this agreement -- they see it as an act of provocative weakness on America’s part.”

The experience of fighting Obama’s request for an authorization for the use of force may also embolden critics in Obama’s own party to oppose him in future legislative battles, Gergen said.

“The liberal left tasted what it is to take on the president and succeed,” Gergen said. “We’re already seeing a drumbeat against Larry Summers on the left. I imagine we’ll see that on Keystone Pipeline, and we may see that on the budget.”

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