U.S. politicians wonder if Obama was outfoxed on Syria chemical weapons

There is no shortage of skeptics among the American political class regarding the tentative agreement between the United States and Russia to secure and destroy Syria's chemical weapons that was announced on Saturday.

While Obama has publicly defended the deal, some worry that the deal exposes American weakness while strengthening the hand of the Russians and Syrian President Bashar Assad in the middle of his country's raging civil war. Others warned that the agreement's success depends largely on the cooperation of Russian and Syrian authorities who have proven themselves anything but trustworthy.

Even those who hailed the deal as a breakthrough concede that many potential pitfalls could jeopardize U.S. interests on the road to a complete disarmament of Syria's chemical stockpile.

"I think it's a loser," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said of the deal Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press." "Because I think it gave Russia a position in the Middle East, which they haven't had since 1970. We are now depending on the goodwill of the Russian people if Bashar Assad violates this agreement. And I am of the firm belief, given his record, that is a very, very big gamble.

"It's not a matter of trust, it's a matter of whether or not it will be enforced," McCain said. "Suppose this deal is made and then Bashar Assad does not comply."

McCain added he believed the U.S. had effectively taken the threat of military force off the table, despite Obama administration claims to the contrary.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said on CBS' "Face the Nation" that a considerable dose of caution is in order as the U.S. and Russia move forward with the deal.

"I think all of us have to approach this with a healthy and strong degree of skepticism," Corker said. "This is not only what is said in these agreements, but also what is not said or what it said privately. So I think we need to move through this with skepticism. There's no question that Russia has retained its ability to veto under [United Nations rules], so the threat of force from a multi-battle standpoint is still very much in Russian hands."

"That's the most important element, is the veto piece," Corker added. "So in many ways, our credibility in the region and certainly relative to the chemical warfare is very much driven by Russia, which has its hands firmly on the steering wheel."

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., sounded a similar note on CNN's "State of the Union."

"Obviously, I'm skeptical," he said, adding the president's evolving menu of options regarding Syria provided a diplomatic advantage to the Russians, which they promptly exploited. "They saw it. They stepped in. This is a Russian plan for Russian interests."

Although the U.S. has said it reserves the right to take military action if Syria reneges on the terms of the agreement, American negotiators agreed to drop the threat of force from a U.N. resolution on Syrian disarmament, a concession Rogers condemned as a mistake.

"If the president believes like I do that a credible military force helps you get a diplomatic solution, they gave that away in this deal. I'm really concerned about that," he said. "'Remember, it's a framework. There are a lot of 'should's, not a lot of hard dates. All of this has to go to the U.N. So, not one ounce of chemical weapons came off the battlefield, but we have given up every ounce of our leverage when it comes to trying to solve the broader Syrian problem, because we've taken away a credible military threat."

"I do think Putin's playing chess and we're playing tic-tac-toe," Rogers said. "Think about where he is and what he wanted out of Syria. He got everything he wanted... He wanted Assad there. He gets to keep his warm water port. He gets to keep his military contracts. And, he gives breathing space to both Hezbollah, which is fighting on behalf of Assad, and he creates a problem for us with al Qaeda operating in the east. This was a big win for him."

On CNN, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich parroted Rogers' assessment that the U.S. was being out-gamed by the Russians.

"Putin stepped in to maximize Russian influence in the Middle East," Gingrich said. "That is strategically a defeat for the United States. We are now relying on the Russians. We're now following from behind, not leading from behind. This is not a good long-term position."

But the reliance on Russia, while problematic due to questions about trust, could also be the deal's saving grace, some pundits explained Sunday, due to Russia's considerable influence over the Syrian government.

"I do know the Russians have, again, the most leverage over Syria and Assad and can be most effective," said Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, on "Fox News Sunday."

After the U.S. push for a multilateral military response began to look like a long shot, McCaul said, "Putin came in and said, 'You know what? It's in the global best interests to deal with this issue'...It's an odd scenario, don't get me wrong here. But I do think that, again, Russia has the greatest leverage over Assad in Syria, and we need to be working with them to do that."

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich, agreed on "Face the Nation" that Russian pressure will be key to the deal's success.

"Russia can force Assad to do what Russia wants Assad to do," he explained. "It is the weapons supplier for Assad; it has been deeply involved in one of the very few countries that have supported Assad."

And despite the abundance of critics, many recognized that the emerging framework provides the best opportunity to date to uphold the prohibition against chemical weapons without committing any military assets to a potentially costly endeavor in Syria.

"We don't want American troops on the ground in Syria in a civil war," Rep. McCaul said. "But in a situation that had no good outcome about two weeks ago, we see actually something that I think could possibly be a good outcome down the road."

The agreement "represents significant progress," Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., told "Face the Nation.

"It would not have been achieved again, assuming it's fully implemented, which is the key, but assuming that it is fully implemented, this progress would not have been achieved without the threat of the use of a military strike by President Obama," Levin said.

Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., an opponent of earlier calls for military intervention in Syria, welcomed a deal that would secure Syria's chemical stockpile without military action.

"I think most Republicans believe we're in the right spot now, in the sense that at least there's a process where we can get the chemical weapons out there," Amash said on ABC's "This Week." "We haven't achieved success yet, but at least we're avoiding the bombing. And people back home do not want us to get involved in a war over there."

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., agreed on CNN that it is "very significant" that the U.S. may be able to achieve its goal of reinforcing the prohibition against chemical weapons without resorting to the use of force.

"I'm cautiously optimistic about this deal," he said. "Just a week ago, we were in a situation where we had Russia and Syria saying, not even admitting to date, they had the weapons. And now, we are sitting down at the table very aggressive agenda, sitting down at that table trying to resolve this issue without a bullet being fired. That's very significant."

  • Jake Miller