During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, President John Kennedy received two different messages from the Soviet Union’s Premier Nikita Khrushchev. JFK had been working to get the USSR’s missiles removed from Cuba and, in addition to a naval blockade of the island nation, was also communicating via official diplomatic messages and a back channel run by his brother Attorney General Robert Kennedy.
President Kennedy chose to answer the message that provided the best way out for both nations, teetering on the brink of nuclear exchange. While the Soviets agreed to remove their missiles from Cuba, the U.S. promised never to invade Cuba (especially salient given the previous year’s disaster at the Bay of Pigs). However, secretly, the United States also agreed to remove missiles from Turkey and Italy. In chess terms, the Soviet gambit had gained the removal of many American pieces from the Cold War board.
If we fast-forward almost half a century, we have another instructive moment in Russian-American brinksmanship.
If Syria is in the place of Cuba, an adversarial dictatorship that possesses weapons of mass destruction with a Russian patron, we can see how this autumn chess match was played.
President Obama has had pieces removed from his board also as nation after nation refused to support any military action against Syria to punish the regime and degrade its chemical weapons capabilities. While some nations, such as France, would agree to some manner of logistical support, the military action would be solely an American operation.
Akin to the U.S. naval blockade of Cuba, America and Russian ships were steaming into proximity on the Mediterranean Sea. In this case, the back channel of communication was actually an off-hand comment by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. When he said that the only option other than a military strike would be President Assad agreeing to put his chemical weapons under international inspection and control, noting that it would never happen, the opening in the US game board was made.
Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized and seized the opportunity, publicly engaging the Syrian regime in an effort to make the international inspection concept the plan to stop the US military strike.
With President Obama losing Congressional and public support for his vague military action, it was becoming increasingly unlikely that Obama would have any support to take a shot. Even so, Putin removed the bulls-eye and Obama was left to rewrite his address to the nation yet again. As of this morning, and Reuters’ report that Assad has accepted the “Putin Plan,” Obama will be shut in with his speechwriters all day.
Obama’s address will probably feature him using the words “I” and “my” a lot as he tries to say that his military pressure is what made Assad blink in this game. The fact that Obama’s plan was losing so much steam that it had no pressure makes no difference. Why let the facts get in the way of a good story?
Consider how long it took to Saddam Hussein to allow international inspectors to come into Iraq and how many United Nations resolutions he ignored. Consider also how much progress in nuclear and missile technology is being made in Iran and North Korea while they do the slow walk with the international authorities.
What Putin has gained is control of the entire situation. His client state of Syria will carry on unmolested by any incoming ordnance from the United States. While the arrangements are being carefully negotiated (Note to Secretary Kerry: please don’t waste time on the shape of the table.), Assad can consolidate his positions and get back to the business of slaughtering his own people with conventional weapons.
Putin has also proven his superiority to the American President. I can see why Vladimir Putin is such a remarkable leader and totally representative of “Russian-ness,” a rugged nation that gets its soup and its liquor from the same potato. We’d have to elect Chuck Norris to the White House to match Russia’s bare-chested, hunting-and-fishing, judo-fighting, horseback-riding, secret agent leader. Putin vs. Obama in the octagon would be over in less than a minute.