Vladimir Putin has done the impossible. He has made us root for him.
Yeah, the same gay-bashing, Pussy Riot-jailing, Super-Bowl-ring-lifting, ex-KGB, loves-to-watch-old-clips-of-Khruschev-and-his-shoe Russian leader — he’s now our guy, the indispensable man in the unsolvable Syrian mess.
He says he can get Syria’s Bashar al Assad to give up his chemical weapons — even while saying it must have been the rebels (wink, wink) who used them to kill all those people — and therefore let Barack Obama off the hook because, whatever other horrors Assad plans for his people, he wouldn’t be able to gas them. Even Assad is saying he’ll hand over control of his weapons.
The red line would be erased. The civil war would go on, but the civil war is going to go on anyway. Putin gets to be a hero. Russia gets back on the map. John Kerry gets to say gaffes are good. Congress doesn’t get to embarrass Obama with a no-confidence vote. Obama doesn’t have to pursue a pointless mission that won’t change anything except to assure everyone – after Iraq, after Afghanistan — that muscularity remains America’s constant weapon. So …
What could go wrong?
Let’s start with Putin. I mean, seriously.
Forget the shirtless photo — if you can. Forget the horse. Forget the cover of Fats Domino’s Blueberry Hill (no, really, it’s right here, via YouTube.)
Forget that George W. looked into his soul.
Forget that he’s played Obama like Fats’ grand piano.
Forget that the adjective most often applied to him is “reptilian,” which is my favorite description of a world leader since the late great Spy magazine used to call Donald Trump — OK, he thinks he’s a world leader — a “short-fingered vulgarian.” (For the record, Anthony Weiner would now be the pantsless long-fingered-salute vulgarian.)
Forget the New York Times op-ed in which Putin played columnist and lectured Obama for calling America exceptional, which made one senator say he “wanted to vomit” and John Boehner to say his feelings were hurt, although he did not cry.
Forget that while Putin talks about peace, he is the guy who has provided Assad with the weapons to kill tens of thousands of people and allow Syria’s civil war to reach a point where it may go on for years, which may be just what Putin wants, so long as his client Assad stays in power.
OK, that’s a lot of forgetting – and no forgiving — if you want to root for Putin. But at this point, what choice do we have?
We all know about the fog of war and the unpredictability that is inherent with each step you take in any war. But no one could have predicted what would happen when Obama wants to go to war: House Republicans become peaceniks and Putin becomes a peacemaker, going for the Pulitzer and the Nobel in one shot.
The thing is, the Putin ploy could actually work. In fact, it seems now that Putin has no choice but to make it work. It’s difficult to see how Assad could use chemical weapons or even biological weapons now. He has Putin trapped, even as Putin has him trapped. Putin has to keep arming him because otherwise Assad goes rogue, and, if Assad uses gas again, Putin looks like a fool, which is not a good look even when you keep your shirt on. As Dish blogger Andrew Sullivan noted: Putin — not Obama – now owns Syria. He wrote: “You want it, Vladimir? Be our guest.”
It is easy to criticize Obama for his red-line line. He said it at a time when he was being criticized for not doing more in Syria, and by many of the same people who now say Obama should be doing less. Assad did cross a serious line. The humanitarian concerns are genuine. The pictures of the gassed are real. The horror is no less true because Putin steps to the rescue or because Obama was left to make a speech arguing against himself about whether war-weary America should take this step.
To begin a war, you always have to demonize the other side. In this case, Assad, like Saddam Hussein, plays the villain well enough. But the problem is the American people know Assad’s a villain. They believe Obama when he says the Syrian government unleashed the gas attack. This is not like Iraq, at least in this one regard. There’s no rush to judgment. Obama has spent two years not going to war in Syria.
We know all this. And yet Americans still overwhelmingly do not want to go to war in Syria. Every poll says the same. Even Congress has figured that out. And now Obama, who has never explained what bombings in Syria would actually accomplish, may have found a way out.
John Kerry may threaten that the bombs could still fall if Syria doesn’t fully commit to giving up control of its chemical weapons. But does anyone see that happening now? Whatever small momentum there was for war is now gone.
This once, the people have been heard. It still doesn’t explain, though, how one of the people came to be Vladimir Putin.