As new details emerge about the origin of the unexpected compromise to avoid American military strikes against Syria, they reinforce that the United States' role in that nation's conflict is — and has always been — largely tangential.
When Secretary of State Kerry blurted out the idea of trading strikes for Syria abandoning its chemical weapons arsenal, it seemed like an accident. A report from the Wall Street Journal detailing the history of the idea suggests that the moment of introduction may have been an accident, but the concept itself was well-worn. First introduced at the G20 economic summit in 2012, it was largely finalized at the summit this year after the August attack that has been the focal point of American efforts. Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, spoke multiple times about the structure of a deal in the interim, setting the stage for a meeting between Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin for 20 minutes on the last day of the summit.
Mr. Putin mentioned the plan to remove the weapons from Mr. Assad's control, and Mr. Obama agreed it could be an avenue for cooperation, both sides confirm.
They agreed to have Messrs. Kerry and Lavrov shape a proposal. But discussions about it were still preliminary—and the administration had doubts that it would work.
When Kerry opened his mouth, those doubts moved to the back burner.
It is, of course, in the Obama administration's interests to suggest that the provenance of the idea is far longer and more complex than an accidental eruption from the country's top diplomat. Particularly since Russia's rapid embrace of the idea quickly fixed the idea that it was the "Russian proposal," leading to critiques such as that from Slate: "If your foreign policy has to be rescued by a dictator, you are doing it wrong." Russia's ownership of the idea is understandable: it fits squarely within the country's foreign policy objectives and, yes, allows it to look like the calming agent in an unstable situation. The desire to be the ones who came up with the idea that prevented war is global; Poland now says it was the originating country, according to BuzzFeed. (Sadly, its involvement seems belated.)
Whoever came up with the idea, America was always a co-participant focused on a small part of the broader Syrian conflict. This isolationism was intentional; neither the administration nor other elected officials in Washington were eager to have to intermediate the complex factions in the Syrian war. Even after Obama got approval to arm the rebels in an effort to resolve the conflict, the CIA apparently delayed doing so, worried about introducing more arms into the volatile mix. As Obama said in his speech on Tuesday, "America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong."
Even before that speech, the American-Polish-Russian plan had already moved away from being one centered around the United States. France and Russia disputed details of the plan at the United Nations, the United States largely standing in the background, holding its sword over Syria. America doesn't want to be the world's policeman, but it is generally cool with being the bouncer.
We won't know until the inevitable Bob Woodward book whether or not the president really wanted to intervene in Syria, even before the chemical weapons attack(s). Given the harsh response to his call for a congressional vote, it's hard to imagine that he's terribly upset about having the country step out of the spotlight.