Bloomberg View columnists Margaret Carlson and Ramesh Ponnuru met online today to chat about Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin and what may be the best solution in Syria. Here is a lightly edited transcript.
Ramesh: As far as I can tell, we seem to have been saved from an ill-considered war by the American public, Putin and the Obama administration's incompetence. It isn't, I think, a turn of events anyone would have predicted a week ago (with the possible exception of Albert Brooks). What can be said in the administration's defense is that it does seem to have frightened Bashar al-Assad. I suspect, though, that Obama regrets many of the steps he took that got us here.
Margaret: Oh, it was messy, as was Obama's speech last night. Policy making on Syria is like Syria: a horrible problem without a solution. Not one proposal comes without the potential for deadly unintended consequences. The exception is the one proposal everyone grabbed onto this week. Members of Congress and the White House unified at least and headed for the lifeboat offered by archenemy Putin -- whom our colleague Jeff Goldberg aptly wrote will be the Syria desk officer at the State Department for the foreseeable future. His other apt description is that our secretary of state is slap-happy, offering one description (Assad is Hitler) at complete odds with another (any attack will be "unbelievably small').
Ramesh: Archenemy, Margaret? Careful: You're beginning to sound like Mitt Romney. The elevation of Putin as a major player in the Middle East is one of the biggest costs of this episode, along with the loss of the administration's credibility abroad (the very commodity that was one of the principal arguments for backing its policy). But the price seems, given the alternatives, to be worth paying -- for the country, for the administration and for most Republicans as well. I don't see any option but to try to make the best of the Russian offer.
Margaret: Putin is an aging buffoon now. Like Italy's Silvio Berlusconi who is always looking for a "bunga bunga" party, Putin is making sure he leaves office as an oligarch billionaire. We don't go to war with the world leaders we want, but with the world leaders we have. It was ugly, for sure, but maybe we stumbled into the best possible outcome for now. Obama scared Assad with his willingness to strike, Congress slowed him down, and Russia, for its own reasons, stepped up. I had dinner with a senator last night who said Obama started his Capitol Hill lunch yesterday by saying "I get how you feel. My own family is opposed to a strike," as if Obama had the votes he needed -- I was told Obama doesn't have 50 votes in the Senate. Last week, the same senator got a call from Joe Biden ostensibly to twist his arm. The vice president twisted it so gently and gave up so easily when he failed that the senator wondered if Biden, his friend, disagreed with Obama and had put his vice presidency into a blind trust managed by the aforementioned and slap-happy Kerry.
Ramesh: It all makes for an odd backdrop to this Sept. 11 anniversary. There's a sense of deflation. We're waiting for a non-war. The expressions of grief and remembrance -- I'm on a lot of politicians' e-mail lists -- seem more rote than even a year ago. And then you watch the footage, and it all comes back.
Margaret: I was mesmerized by the replay of the coverage this morning; as the awful truth dawned on Katie Couric and Matt Lauer (the anchors of the "Today" show at the time), they did a remarkably competent job which holds up to this day. My stomach still lurches when I think that my daughter was in downtown New York that day. She was safe, but no one knew anything as planes kept dropping from the sky. Obama and Kerry the last two weeks don't inspire confidence until I contrast them with George W. Bush's reaction to Sept. 11. Bush was a cowboy flailing about on his white horse, guns blazing, using the attacks for his pet cause of deposing Saddam Hussein in Iraq and then, for good measure, spending 10 years in the rubble fighting tribes in Afghanistan.
Ramesh: Odd, isn't it, how Bush was able to get a majority of Senate Democrats, including both of Obama's secretaries of state, to take up his pet cause? And the Afghan war had the enthusiastic support of Democrats, including Obama through 2008. The great sin of the Bush administration on Iraq was not to have imagined what the aftermath would be -- to think that everything would go as we hoped. As far as I can tell from what the Obama administration has said about Syria, all of it indulging the fantasy that we can calibrate our use of force so it's just strong enough but not too strong, that's still a strong temptation.
Margaret: I disagree. Obama is hobbled by the specter of how many things could go wrong and almost nothing could go right. We punish, as we should, the use of chemical weapons, but we don't want to get in the middle of a civil war with no winner we can live with. Better the tyrant you know than the al-Nusra Front.