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Robert Bennett: The U.S. has suffered humiliation before

Published: Monday, Sept. 16 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

President Barack Obama addresses the nation in a live televised speech from the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013. President Obama blended the threat of military action with the hope of a diplomatic solution as he works to strip Syria of its chemical weapons.

Evan Vucci, Associated Press

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The pace of events and the number of twists and turns with respect to the situation in Syria have been so frantic that there is a possibility that this analysis will have been overtaken by events before it's printed. Taking that chance, this is what I see.

Future historians will describe many things that could and should have been done differently in the years leading up to President Barack Obama's Sept. 10 speech, actions which would have enabled him to avoid the final box in which he found himself. However, once in it, he had only two choices. He could defend his earlier pledge calling for a military strike in Syria and then be embarrassed by a vote in Congress that told him "no," or he could grab the fig leaf of a possible diplomatic deal brokered by the Russians and postpone the vote, possibly forever. Understandably, he took the latter course.

That choice not only avoided the spectacle of a bipartisan rebuke at the hands of the Congress, but since negotiations on the particulars of the deal will take weeks if not months to play out, bought him some time in which he hopes the details of his zigging and zagging will fade from memory. He needs that; even Maureen Doud, usually a reliable friend of Democrats, wrote of "amateur night at the White House."

In Syria, there was deep disappointment in the ranks of the rebel opposition's "moderates" — a loose term which seems to mean those that are not aligned with al-Qaida — who had staked their hopes on their conviction that Obama would keep his word. They are now fading away and soon the "Islamists" — a loose term that seems to mean al-Qaida — will have full control of the effort but with fewer troops and less firepower. Amply supplied with military arms by his Russian friends, Bashar Assad will prevail.

Obama must have realized that this was highly likely to happen anyway. An "unbelievably small" attack, to quote Secretary of State John Kerry, would not have eliminated Assad's entire chemical stockpile or changed the course of the war. Doing that would require a military effort that Obama said he would never launch and the American people would never have supported.

The biggest winner in all this at the moment appears to be Vladimir Putin. He wants the war to end as much as we do, albeit with Assad firmly in power, because he envisions a Russian-led alliance with Iran and Syria. The possibility that he will get it now looks good; he has positioned himself as the statesman-like "honest broker" who averted larger war in contrast to the dithering Obama. America's influence in the Middle East is declining while Russia's is increasing and Putin could well emerge as the region's strongest leader.

None of this is pleasant to contemplate, which is why the commentary on Obama's performance in the last few weeks has been almost uniformly negative. I agree with much of it but wonder how relevant it is. Yes, he acted to help himself politically but had no option available that would have changed the situation on the ground in Syria. American bombs are not killing people there just to make a point, which is a good thing.

America has suffered humiliation before. Our standing in the world was much worse after Vietnam. We are still the world's strongest country, with its deepest and most balanced economy and our prospects are still far better than Russia's, China's or those of any other country one can name. That has not changed.

Dispiriting as the news from Syria may be, this too shall pass.

Robert Bennett, former U.S. senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

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