Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

It’s Your Turn to be Vladimir Putin

Timothy Sherratt


By Timothy Sherratt

September 20, 2013

How ironic it is that Russian President Vladimir Putin, via the influence he exercises on the Syrian regime, should have saved President Obama from the no-win consequences of his “red line” pledge on chemical weapons made last year. When his bluff was called by last month’s atrocity that left over thirteen hundred Syrian civilians dead, the president seemed first to imply that a military strike was imminent before he pivoted and called on Congress to give him broad authority to act. The change of heart sent mixed messages and a “no” vote was widely predicted.

With the vote delayed and diplomacy on the brink of an important achievement, the President can still rattle the saber but to a more constructive end: Syria must abide by the accord reached in Geneva by Secretary Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, or military strikes may take place.   

The accord creates space to consider the moral dilemmas of the Syrian civil war in all their complexity. Indeed, much as Michael Gerson invited us to do in his column last week, we must ponder the enormity of the use of conventional weapons on civilians alongside the horrors of chemical weapons so deployed. Without question, however, Syria’s surrendering of its chemical weapons arsenal would be a great step forward, removing a particularly gruesome form of weapon from warfare. There is another benefit: negotiating the surrender of its chemical weapons will make it easier for the Syrian regime to accede to a negotiated end to the conflict as a whole.

Was anything lost because Congress did not vote? Would the United States have turned a corner in its post-Cold War international relations? Media tropes do not encourage such a conclusion. Public disapproval was widely treated as signaling “weariness” — the unspoken implication being that if Americans were re-energized we would recover our appetite for unilateral military engagement.

We may never know. Had the Congressional debate taken place, the outcome would likely have been overshadowed by partisan motivations. Republicans, noticeably divided on Syria, would have relished the opportunity to inflict a defeat on the president ahead of important policy deliberations in the House on immigration. Liberal Democrats, fresh from the recent elevation of two of their kind in Massachusetts, would have flexed newfound muscle to bring the policy focus back stateside even as they rued the risk to presidential leadership. Whatever the motivations, defeat would have delivered a body blow to this presidency ahead of yet another debt ceiling debate. 

That debate bodes ill for this fall’s policy agenda as it promises renewed partisan gridlock with spillover effects on immigration reform, which supporters will pressure House leaders to take up this fall. Even gun control, which received its latest perverse bounce in yet another mass shooting this week, may regain lost momentum. But a fractious debate over the debt ceiling along with perceived ambivalence on Syria may prove destructive to both those initiatives. And next year is an election year, poor soil for serious policy making.

The most helpful letter to write to your representatives and senators may be a call to take a page from the book on Syria and step back from the brink of yet more partisan conflict this fall. Already, House leaders want to tie a vote to raise the debt ceiling to a year-long delay to the further implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Predictably, the President has declared that such an option is not on the table. While dysfunctional governance imposed on citizens should in no way be equated with the civilian casualties inflicted by a real shooting war, there is much to be said for encouraging our political parties to reach what agreement they can and to place some restraint on the effects of their differences. In domestic as much as in foreign policy, government owes its citizens thoughtful consideration of all the alternatives.

It’s your turn to be Vladimir Putin!

- Timothy Sherratt is Professor of Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”