Maureen Dowd / Putin throws Obama a lifeline

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Vladimir Putin, who keeps Edward Snowden on a leash and lets members of a riotous girl band rot in jail, has thrown President Barack Obama a lifeline.

The Russian president had coldly brushed back Mr. Obama on Mr. Snowden and Syria, and only last week called John Kerry a liar. Now, when it is clear Mr. Obama can't convince Congress, the American public, his own wife, the world, Liz Cheney or even Donald "Shock and Awe" Rumsfeld to bomb Syria -- just a teensy-weensy bit -- Pooty-Poot (as W. called him) rides, shirtless, to the rescue, offering him a face-saving way out?

If it were a movie, we'd know it was a trick. We can't trust the soulless Putin -- his Botox has given the former KGB officer even more of a poker face -- or the heartless Bashar Assad. By Tuesday, Putin the Peacemaker was already setting conditions.

Just as Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry -- with assists from Hillary and some senators -- were huffing and puffing that it was their military threat that led to the breakthrough, Mr. Putin moved to neuter them, saying they'd have to drop their military threat before any deal could proceed.

The administration's saber-rattling felt more like knees rattling. Oh, for the good old days when Mr. Obama was leading from behind. Now these guys are leading by slip-of-the-tongue.

Amateur hour started when Mr. Obama dithered on Syria and failed to explain the stakes there. It escalated in August 2012 with a slip by the methodical wordsmith about "a red line for us" -- which the president and Mr. Kerry later tried to blur as the world's red line, except the world was averting its eyes.

Mr. Obama's flip-flopping, ambivalent leadership led him to the exact place he never wanted to be: unilateral instead of unified. Once again, as with gun control and other issues, he had not done the groundwork necessary to line up support.

The bumbling approach climaxed with two off-the-cuff remarks by Mr. Kerry, hitting a rough patch in the role of a lifetime, during a London press conference Monday; he offered to forgo an attack if Assad turned over "every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community" and promised, if they did strike, that it would be an "unbelievably small" effort.

A State Department spokeswoman walked back Mr. Kerry's first slip, but once the White House realized it was the only emergency exit sign around, Mr. Kerry walked back the walking back, claiming at a congressional hearing Tuesday that he did not "misspeak."

The president countered Mr. Kerry's second slip with NBC's Savannah Guthrie on Monday night, declaring that "The U.S. does not do pinpricks," which Mr. Kerry parroted at the hearing Tuesday, declaring that "We don't do pinpricks." For good measure, Mr. Obama, in his address to the nation Tuesday night, made sure the world knew: "The United States military doesn't do pinpricks."

Where the mindlessly certain W. adopted a fig leaf of diplomacy to use force in Iraq, the mindfully uncertain Obama is adopting a fig leaf of force to use diplomacy in Syria.

Even as Democrats tiptoed away from the red line, eager to kick the can of sarin down the road, their own harsh rhetoric haunted them. Mr. Kerry compared Assad to Hitler last week, and Harry Reid evoked "Nazi death camps" on the Senate floor Monday.

Again, an echo of the misbegotten Iraq. Making his hyperbolic case for war, W. was huffy with Germans on a visit in 2002, irritated that they did not seem to grasp the horror of "a dictator who gassed his own people," as he put it to a Berlin reporter.

Mr. Obama cried over the children of Newtown, Conn. He is stricken, as he said in his address Tuesday, by "images of children writhing in pain and going still on a cold hospital floor" from "poison gas." He thought -- or thought he thought -- that avenging the gassing was the right thing to do. But W., once more haunting his successor's presidency, drained credibility, coffers and compassion.

While most Americans shudder at the news that 400 children have been killed by a monster, they recoil at the Middle East now; they've had it with Shiites vs. Sunnis, with Alawites and all the ancient hatreds.

Mr. Kerry can bluster that "we're not waiting for long" for Assad to cough up the weapons, but it will be hard for him to back it up, given that a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll indicates that Joe Sixpack is now a peacenik; in 2005, 60 percent of Republicans agreed with W. that America should foster democracy in the world; now only 19 percent of Republicans believe it.

W., Dick Cheney and Mr. Rumsfeld launched a social engineering scheme to change the mindset in the Middle East about democracy and the mindset at home about the post-Vietnam reluctance to be muscular about imposing our values through war.

They did manage to drastically change the mind-set in the Middle East and at home, but in the opposite way than they intended.

In a crouch after 9/11, the country was happy to punish an Arab villain, even the wrong one. That mass delusion, plus the economic vertigo, has sent Americans into a permanent crouch. And that's too bad.

opinion_commentary

Maureen Dowd is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.


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