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Obama's Gamble

When I first heard President Obama was going along with a Russian proposal backing a plan for international monitors to oversee President Bashar al-Assad’s arsenal of chemical weapons, I thought Obama would be better off taking his chances with Congress, even though the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll found scant support in the country for a strike against Syria.

I thought the greater peril for the president was in accepting a proposal from his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. The Russian president, lest we forget, was an officer for 16 years in the diabolic KGB, the security agency of the Soviet era. Obama should tread warily on the Russian leader’s bid to pull his chestnuts from the fire.

That’s what I said to a friend. But I may have erred, or at least behaved like a man lost in a time warp, as I imagined outrage, exclamations, violent rhetoric from the president’s enemies for trusting the Russians. My friend replied that my attitudes towards Russia were dated and glib, and after a generation or two since the end of World War II many — probably most — Americans no longer viewed Russia as an evil empire, as once so characterized by Ronald Reagan. The Cold War was over, and had been for many years. And that’s a fact, my friend asserted.

My attitude was framed in an earlier era, in the crises following World War II, from the Berlin airlift in 1947 to 1991 when the rickety and corrupt Soviet Union heaved a mighty sigh, and collapsed. The Berlin Wall came down, and communist states in Eastern Europe had a great fall. Where there had been two superpowers, there was only one, the U.S.

It’s hard to forget those headlines: the Cuban Missile crisis in 1962 when the world teetered on the edge of a nuclear wipeout. The bloody Soviet invasion of  Hungary. The collapse of democracy and the rise of the police state in Eastern Europe. The illusion of the Prague spring. I had to get all that out of my head, catch up with modern times.

The Russia of the Soviet Union was gone with the wind. It put me in mind of my father’s stories about World War I — that holocaust was already some 20 years in the past — but it seemed like ancient history, as old as Caesar’s history on the Gallic War. So, yes, I had to catch up with modern times.

I took note of winners and losers as mentioned in the New York Times in the Syrian deal brokered by Russia: Obama, for avoiding an embarrassing defeat in Congress over the use of force; and Russia and Syria for buying time for Assad. (I would have added Putin for re-inventing himself as the angel of peace.)

As for the losers, the Times cited the rebels but also “in large part, Syrian civilians, who human rights groups say have been systematically attacked by the government, and who have suffered abuses from both sides.”

This article originally appeared in the San Leandro Times.

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