If Russian president Vladimir Putin had put forth his peace plan a few days earlier than he did, it’s doubtful that President Obama would have bothered to deliver a primetime address Tuesday night. What he said—Syria is still dangerous, but there’s no need to act just yet while we pursue this new diplomatic path—doesn’t move the plot forward or require the nation’s rapt attention.
And yet the surprise twist from Moscow might well place Obama in an equally unexpected win-win position. The first of the two wins is obvious. Putin’s move rescues Obama from what would almost certainly have been the most devastating defeat of his presidency. The speech was originally intended as a last-ditch effort to convince Congress to approve a bill authorizing him to use force against Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria—a bill that the House of Representatives seemed set to vote down by a huge margin. Now, the vote can be put off while diplomacy is given another try.
The second win is iffier, but it seems that Putin is wriggling in a trap of his own making. On Monday, as everyone knows, Secretary of State John Kerry said, perhaps offhandedly, that the U.S. air strikes against Syria could be called off if Assad placed all of his chemical weapons under international control—to which Putin replied, “Yes, let’s do that.” Obama had scheduled several TV interviews that day, for the purpose of making his case for an attack; but now that Putin’s plan was headline news, he changed course and said this could be a game-changer.