But where do we go from here?
Assuming for a moment that the U.N. and the Russians and the Syrians and everyone else involved actually dispose of Syria's chemical weapons, this is a win for humanity and for the potential victims who will now be spared. But of course, the toll from chemical attacks in Syria is perhaps a couple of thousand of the more than 100,000 who have died in the civil war. And that war will go on. Moreover, it will go on with one of Bashar al-Assad's primary allies, Russia, significantly strengthened on the international stage. Indeed, Assad himself -- instead of being prosecuted and swept from power as he should be -- may well end up being seen as more reasonable, and indeed, by participating in the process with the U.N., he may actually be propped up or at least buy himself time. He'll thus have an opening to take advantage of the fact that one of the implied messages of this whole debate in the United States and the world is that, when you get right down to it, we may hate him and what he's doing, but we hate/fear al Qaeda and the extremists even more.
This, apparently, is Assad's real trump card, and it has never been more clearly in focus than when some members of Congress argued that hitting the Damascus regime was undesirable because it would strengthen Jabhat al-Nusra and other terrorist groups.
Also strengthened by staving off this attack and by giving Russia more traction on the international stage and possibly helping inadvertently to prop up Assad are Syria's other prime sponsors, the Iranians. In fact, they may be the biggest beneficiaries. First, Iran's key allies, the Russians and the Assad regime, come out of this somewhat stronger or, at least, not weaker as they might have been after a strike. Second, it is now clear that the United States is extremely unlikely to intervene anywhere in the Middle East without an exceptionally strong reason to do so and backed by very clear evidence (which is hard to come by with nuclear programs and the like). As detractors start to spin this narrative, Barack Obama will almost certainly reassert his resolve to stop the Iranian nuclear program by whatever means necessary. But it will be impossible to hear him the same way after this incident. His credibility has been deeply damaged, and the current attempt to avoid self-inflicted wounds in Congress won't help much on that front.
There are knock-on effects here, too. The Israelis are already starting to recalibrate their plans to account for this new reality. Other American allies in the Persian Gulf are doing likewise. It's not that they don't expect the United States to be of any help; it's just that, as one diplomat from the region said to me, "We have to expect in the future, America will act more slowly, be more limited, and that our enemies will know this and try to take advantage of it." If you don't think that very same message is being internalized in other corners of the planet -- like the home of the best friend Syria shares with Dennis Rodman, North Korea -- then you are as clueless as the Worm himself. (That's Rodman again for you non-basketball, non-narcissistic lunatic fans.)
Of course, if you believe it's only the extremely lucky blind squirrel who finds a nut, then perhaps the luck will hold. An alternative, extremely optimistic scenario would have a Russia and Syria that, energized by this small diplomatic victory, would embrace a move toward a diplomatic resolution of Syria's civil war. Slightly less optimistic would be to hope that, even if they didn't achieve total success, they might be able to work out a power-sharing arrangement with some elements of the opposition that could at least tamp down the hostilities. Further, in this most upbeat of story lines, the Russians, gaining diplomatic traction, might then work to play a more constructive role brokering a deal with Iran on its nuclear program. After all, the new regime in Iran seemed for a moment to be sending slightly more encouraging messages regarding its openness on that front -- though, just this week, President Hassan Rouhani said Iran would not give up "one iota" of its program. Reducing the threat of conflict with Iran would be a game-changer in the region and would certainly have global markets perking up a bit.
Even in this Prozac-infused optimistic scenario, the result is a still-somewhat-weakened U.S. president and a strengthened and consolidated position for countries with historically hostile views toward the United States or at least toward U.S. influence in the region and toward many of America's closest allies. Which may be the best we can hope for at this point. After all, Iran does remain the place where the region's next major military confrontation seems most likely to take place. And the clear message that the president and the American people are sending at the moment is that we prefer even unlikely, long-shot, and temporary solutions that may to some degree strengthen our rivals and our enemies over more war, more chaos, and possibly more Americans being put at risk.
If all this happens, it would be stretching matters hugely to suggest, as the White House might be tempted to do, that it be seen as part of a long-standing strategy once discussed over a glass of tea with Putin. But we may all be able to think of it as the realization of the Blind Squirrel Gambit -- the foreign-policy approach where we stumble around in the dark, shit happens, and in the end, we all get lucky. It's a great approach … if it works. There's only one problem with it: It seldom does.