Spooked because their constituents strongly oppose intervening in Syria's civil war and alarmed by President Barack Obama's inept handling of the crisis, members of Congress were about to vote down a resolution authorizing military strikes.
Mr. Obama was spared a humiliating defeat when Russian President Vladimir Putin tossed him a lifeline. Like a trout dazzled by a fisherman's lure, our president snapped up the bait.
"Putin openly despises your president," Russian political analyst Andrei A. Piontovsky told The New York Times. So why would he help Mr. Obama out of a jam?
The Russian leader was following sage advice offered by a Chinese general 2,500 years ago.
"Do not press a desperate foe too hard," advises Sun Tzu in "The Art of War." "Build your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across." If you know your enemy and you know yourself, you'll win all your battles, Sun Tzu said.
As Con Coughlin, defense editor of the London Telegraph, wrote, Mr. Putin knows that "Mr. Obama will grab any excuse he can find to avoid military action against Damascus."
And Mr. Putin knows that because he's so vain, Mr. Obama is more likely to act to protect his own reputation than America's. So when another stupid thing Secretary of State John Kerry said provided an opening, the Russians pounced.
In response to a reporter's question, Mr. Kerry said Syrian dictator Bashar Assad could avert a U.S. military strike -- which earlier in the day he said would be an "unbelievably small, limited kind of effort" -- if his regime gave up its chemical weapons.
This was a "major goof," one official told CNN. He "clearly went off script."
What a swell idea, said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. We'll ask our ally to turn his chemical weapons over to an international body. Mr. Assad readily agreed.
They don't mean it.
"In the next few days or weeks, there are likely to be apparent steps toward turning Syria's weapons over to international supervision," said Russian expert David Satter. "A maximum effort will be made to create the impression of disarmament without actually doing anything."
President Obama couldn't get onto the golden bridge fast enough. When he agreed to debate the Russian proposal in the United Nations, he in effect postponed a U.S. military strike for most likely years, because "it will be impossible for the White House to ask Congress for tough votes in favor of Syrian strikes so long as the president is grasping onto proposals that eliminate the threat of strikes," wrote Jonathan Tobin in Commentary magazine.
Shortly after that, Reuters reported: "Syrian warplanes bombed rebel suburbs of Damascus for the first time in three weeks," indicating that Mr. Assad "no longer feared attack by the United States."
The Russians gained for their ally much more than time.
"Did the world just legitimize the Assad regime it spent years discrediting?" asked Colum Lynch in Foreign Policy magazine.
Yes, said retired British diplomat Charles Crawford. Setting up an international group to monitor Syria's enormous stockpile of chemical munitions "will require painstaking U.N. and wider negotiation with the Assad regime, thereby giving Assad ... a massive boost of renewed confidence and legitimacy."
Mr. Putin has been handed "the most spectacular public relations victory imaginable," said British journalist Janet Daley.
Russia has been shut out of the Middle East ever since Egypt switched sides after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Now Mr. Putin is viewed as the strong horse. Our allies in the region are frustrated and fearful.
With good reason. "If the 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran signaled weakness, the Russian deal screams surrender," wrote Lee Smith of the Weekly Standard.
"The balance of power has shifted dramatically against America," said former George W. Bush aide Peter Wehner. "It may take decades for us to undo the damage, if even that is possible."
President Obama expects the news media to help him persuade "low information" voters that this catastrophe is really a triumph. It was the threat of military strikes that caused the Russians to offer their peace plan, the White House claims.
He may be disappointed. Descriptions of his Syria policy by most liberal pundits have not been kind.
Vladimir Putin is content, for now, to let Mr. Obama preen. The more credit he claims for the Russian plan, the more wedded to it he becomes. Mr. Putin knows that he'll soon have other opportunities to humiliate the president he despises.
Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1476).