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Is Obama Playing Chess on Syria While Everyone Else is Playing Checkers?

It seems that President Obama has either dodged a major bullet or he has been playing chess while everyone else is playing checkers.

Tuesday night he announced that he had asked Congress to postpone a vote on authorizing a strike on Syria to give diplomacy a chance.

A seemingly offhand remark by Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday suggested that Syria could avoid a military strike from the U.S. if it put its chemical weapons under international control. Syria and Russia, which had been challenging the veracity of U.S. arguments for an attack,  embraced the idea immediately.

Some pundits said this created a conundrum for Obama who needed to at once sound supportive and skeptical that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad wanted to act to avoid an airstrike as a consequence for  gassing more than 1,000 Syrian citizens on Aug. 21.

As I watched the run-up to the president’s 15-minute speech, I began to wonder if it was actually a carefully orchestrated plan to force Syria to blink.

Obama’s sense of urgency to get the vote for the strike seemed just a little too eager for someone who initially was criticized by several political leaders, including President Clinton, as recently as June when it seemed the president was reluctant to confirm chemical weapons had been used despite evidence to support that conclusion.

At the time, the White House said the U.S. and its allies had concluded the Assad government had indeed used chemical weapons, but Obama did not urge any intervention other than to offer broader aid, including military support, to opposition groups.

War-fatigued Americans and Congress, especially the House of Representatives, where the Republican majority has fought him tooth-and-nail over nearly any- and everything, were not eager to see military intervention. So winning support to bomb Syria wasn’t very likely.

It’s also pretty likely that Obama knew it.

After all, the president—who has taught constitutional law—had already claimed he didn’t need Congress’ approval to take action under the 1973 War Powers Act and the Constitution. But then bringing Congress into the decision-making process guaranteed that nothing would happen in the short term. He could talk tough and not act; he could pretend he was ready to act without the support of Congress and the American people, but then he sought approval.

Syria blinked.

Whether the Kerry remark was intentional or truly offhand—Obama later said he and Russian President Vladimir Putin had been talking about such a plan for months—the speed with which Syria and Russia took the bait suggested that Syria was looking for a way out. Russia, which offered to help broker the deal, needed to get out of the corner it had painted itself by continuing to defend Syria’s sovereignty on the one hand, and appearing to support the fratricide as a result of Syria’s civil war on the other.

Some news analysts and pundits criticized the president for “failing” to make the case for war in his speech to the American public Tuesday night, gave Russia credit for proposing a peaceful solution and called the episode a failure of U.S. foreign policy.

But who really cares if all those machinations save lives while diplomacy takes its course? At this point, the people who want a political victory know that there is no win at all if there is an act of war.

Obama may be smart; he may be lucky. Either way, most folks will take a chance on a peaceful resolution whether intentional or inadvertent.

Jackie Jones, a journalist and journalism educator, is director of the career transformation firm Jones Coaching LLC and author of “Taking Care of the Business of You: 7 Days to Getting Your Career on Track.”

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