How Congress Learned to Love Vladimir Putin

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Sept. 10 2013 11:41 AM

Not So Fast, Christian Soldiers

How Congress ditched their distaste for Putin and Assad for their newfound faith in realpolitik.

Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad in 2006. Some U.S. members of Congress have found themselves taking a softer stance on Russia given its ability to broker a possible settlement regarding Syria.

Photo by Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

They walked in good cheer from Union Station to the parks across from Capitol Hill—the proud supporters of Bashar al-Assad. They wore T-shirts with the Syrian president’s cheery face emblazoned on the national flag and wore T-shirts that read, “Hands Off Syria,” complete with bloody handprints. Minerva Sabbagh, a priest’s wife who’d ridden one of six buses down from Allentown, Penn., wore a homemade number with the powerful-if-dubious slogan “Jesus Was Syrian.” Her message, like everyone else’s, was that Washington needed to prop up the dictator who could protect Syria’s Christians.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

“He’s standing for Syria, just like Obama is standing for America,” said Sabbagh. “He’s an Allawite! He even goes to the monasteries and prays!”

Sabbagh contrasted Assad’s behavior—being a good husband, being falsely accused of chemical weapons attacks—with the assaults of the Syrian rebels. Why, she asked, did Americans want to side with them? “Animals don’t do what they do,” she said. “They’re opening the chests, beheading, torturing like they did 2,000 years ago.”

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The presence of a reporter in the midst of this rally stirred up the protest. One man, wearing a shirt that portrayed Christ and the crown of thorns with black and orange beads, insisted to me that “it’s all over for the Christians” if Assad were to fall. Another with a sign reading, “We Support the Syrian Military Fighting Al Qaeda,” held it up straight for a photo. When Sabbagh choked up, her daughter Hope helpfully provided fresh spin. “The fall of the Byzantine empire is going to happen again,” she said, “but it’s going to happen in America.”

These were not people or opinions getting a ton of purchase in the mainstream media. They had a more important audience: Congress. The tide of realpolitik washing over the Capitol has Republicans decrying the Syrian rebels’ threat to Christians. It has both parties talking hopefully about a deal with the Russians that would remove the regime’s chemical weapons but do nothing else to upset the balance in the country.

The first argument, the “think of the Christians” spiel, has been gathering force on the right for weeks. Sen. Rand Paul, the most reliable noninterventionist in the GOP, has used nearly every public appearance to emphasize that Christians were safe under the Assad regime but threatened if the radical faction of the Syrian resistance won out. “The one thing you might say if you wanted to say something good [about Assad] is that there was some civility there for a generation or more,” he said last week. “You see what happens when the radical Islamists take over, the Muslim Brotherhood raging through Coptic neighborhoods in Egypt.”

Ten years ago, plenty of Republicans (though not Paul’s father) were fooled into thinking that Saddam Hussein’s secular dictatorship was actually in league with al-Qaida. They’ve since learned to appreciate the iron boot heel of the Arab secularist. Last week, a pack of conservative House Republicans traveled the Arab world and met with the new–old military government in Egypt. They left singing the praises of that regime, and warning Americans of backing any rebels who might be less friendly to Christians and more friendly to al-Qaida. “We remember who caused 9/11 in America,” said Rep. Michele Bachmann while in Cairo.

Maybe it’s easy to dismiss Bachmann, but as members filed into Monday’s private briefing on Syria with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, a few conservatives agreed with her. “Having met with some of our allies in the Middle East, privately they want to know: Do you guys understand you were fighting the Muslim Brotherhood in Afghanistan and these other places?” said Rep. Louie Gohmert, who was on the trip. “Now, you’ve turned on a guy that was a U.S. ally, Mubarak. You turned on a guy, Qaddafi, that since 2003 had been an ally. You turned on the Northern Alliance that really defeated the Taliban initially. Are you gonna turn on us next?”

No Republican, really, could promise that intervention in Syria wouldn’t backfire and help al-Qaida. Rep. Peter King, possibly the most reliable hawk in the party, suggested only that “both sides” would benefit if chemical weapons were neutralized. More skeptical members say that the briefings are full of questions about whether intervention might boost Islamists, and haven’t produced good answers. “Increasingly the opposition that are al-Qaida types are going after the Christians,” said Rep. Christopher Smith, a New Jersey conservative who wants to set up a war crimes tribunal for Syria. “It’s increasingly a case of genocide, not collateral damage. It’s a very dangerous jihad.”

And how do members of Congress hope to prevent that? Realism. “I think we need to re-triple our efforts diplomatically,” said Smith—and like a lot of Republicans on Monday, he wondered if a new proposal from Russia might do the trick. Russia’s offer to allow Syria to transfer control of its chemical weapons to the international community, something that might have been cackled out of the room a few months ago, found plenty of buyers in Congress.

“The potential for a negotiated settlement here—it’s attractive for reasons that are very obvious,” said Virginia Rep. Scott Rigell. The Russian settlement was preferable to any airstrikes, “provided that the objectives that have been articulated, that the international community gains control of the weapons and ultimately they’re destroyed, this is a shared objective. I can’t imagine why one would object to that.”

In the past, hawks—largely Republicans—might have objected because they didn’t trust the Russians, or trust the “international community.” It was only 10 years ago that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was dismissing Western European nations that declined to support the war in Iraq as “old Europe,” and the New York Post was labeling France and Germany as part of the “Axis of Weasels” for preferring weapons inspections to war in Iraq. Before neoconservatives despised that “axis,” they’d despised Henry Kissinger and détente with the Soviet Union, amending trade bills to add human rights conditions for Russian Jews.

But realpolitik is back. Members of Congress are more outwardly concerned about Syrian Christians than they are about AIPAC’s endorsement of airstrikes. They’re tentatively endorsing a Russian plan that may or may not be sincere.

“We did a lot of things with the Soviets,” suggested Rep. Darrell Issa after leaving the closed-door briefing on Monday. “We did a great many things during the Cold War that were positive, including work on nonproliferation. My statement earlier that Putin was part of a smaller but still evil empire that opposes the United States, that blocks it, that has backed Iran, that continues to support Syria for purposes that are not good—I stand by that. But if Russians in this case could get weapons out of the hands of both parties, that’s something we should work on.”

A reporter who’d talked to Issa before about Russia remarked that he’d completely changed his tone. Issa swiveled to find her, looking away from the TV cameras that had been capturing his wisdom.

“He’s still an evil man from an evil empire!” Issa assured the reporter. He turned back to the cameras. “If in fact Putin can, for the sake of his sponsored nation—if he can get weapons out of the hands of Assad, for positions that are in his best interest, then we should work with him. The Russians may not be able to deliver the elimination of chemical weapons, but neither can this military strike.”

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