WASHINGTON -- If there is one predominant conclusion shared by a number of the nation's best thinkers on foreign affairs this week, it is that the Russians did Barack Obama a great favor by getting him out of his plan to attack Syria in order to do ... well, something!
The plan, which purportedly came from Russian President Vladimir Putin through his foreign minister, is already taking form in meetings in Geneva with Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart.
The idea is to convince or to force the Syrian government to give up its chemical weapons and to transport them to some remote and arid place, maybe the beautiful wilds of Kazakhstan, where they would be gradually destroyed.
Already, Bashar Assad, the brutal and banal Alawite president of Syria, has given his assent to such a diplomatic deal. It is not known whether he agreed because his Russian sponsors and weapons procurers pressured him, or because he had simply become terrified of the American waffling, fearful that we might be capable of doing anything at any time.
But for sure, President Obama lucked out. Unless it later turns out that he was somehow the secret spirit behind the Russian idea, which is highly unlikely, this time the Russians have provided him with a "win-win" solution for everybody. Obama will have bought time, and that time can be well used to rid the world of these weapons of mass destruction; and Putin, if he plays his game right, can bring his failing country back to the international chess table.
You know how peeved poor Vladimir can get, sitting in the Kremlin, with all its diamonds and rubies left over from all the mad tsars of history, when he thinks of American dominance in the world. He goes to the gym, takes off his shirt and punches just for fun. It is whispered in boxing circles that he is pretending to be hitting "American exceptionalism." In fact, he said this in his remarkable op-ed in The New York Times Thursday: "It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation."
But I do just have to add that between 1917 and 1991, when the Soviet Union was officially dissolved, it was also "extremely dangerous" to deal with them. The Soviets not only attempted to take over the world in the name of communism, they did it in the belief that communism was "scientific" -- in short, that their faith, or doctrine, or commandments to transform mankind were not merely socially declared, but scientifically proven.
Talk about exceptionalism!
All right, we'll drop the sarcasm, because this time around with the New Russia, there actually is hope for agreement and even for reconciliation. To again switch back to Putin's Times column, the Russian president speaks intelligently about how difficult it is to impose democracy in countries like Syria; he advocates "peaceful dialogue" and "compromise"; and he warns convincingly that, if the U.S. persists in using force first in these civil wars, the troubled countries will feel they have to fall back on destructive weapons. All agreeable views!
Of course, Putin has things to gain. That is his prerogative. The Russians have always been afraid of WMD and have negotiated, in general, honorably on nuclear weapons. (They are far from thoughtless savages, like the al-Qaida and other radical Islamists.) If these negotiations do proceed successfully, it would bring a sad and flailing Russia back into the global arena as a player equal to the United States, but only momentarily.
The Russians may not want Bashar Assad "out" -- but that is, in great part, because they fear an outcome like Libya's, with chaos in the streets and in the region. On the other hand, the Russians always fear their own Third World creations, like Assad -- they have had too much bad luck with the Fidel Castros and Che Guevaras of their past.
For the United States, there is palpable gain to be had in these negotiations. Washington, for instance, has much the same view of Assad as does Russia; the administration sees the warning signs of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. It's a realistic fear.
This also saves the administration from looking like the mad bomber that many see after Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Vietnam, Cambodia, etc.
The negotiations, if done cleverly, could truly "reset" (President Obama's favorite word re Russia) relations. Since 1991, Russia has had as president Boris Yeltsin (a moderate ruling almost all the '90s), Putin (a conservative, four years), Dmitri Medvedev (a moderate, four years) and now conservative Putin again. These were, interestingly enough, majority democrats. That is Russia's direction -- of choice and of realpolitik, despite Putin's reflexive sarcasm and Obama's confused maps of reality.
Better relations between the U.S. and Russia in today's world could change it for all time. And now we have, right before us, the vehicle that could do it.
Read, please, the last line in Putin's Times piece, offering this insight into his mentality: "We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord's blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal."
A still-self-described "communist" asking for "the Lord's blessings" because "God created us equal"? All I can say is "Amen."