Give President Barack Obama this much credit. After months of bumbling over Syria policy, he came essentially to the right decision: The United States must use force in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons.
And, after weeks of indecision, he demonstrated leadership and courage in pursuing the military option despite overwhelming public opposition, foreign abdication of responsibility and the possibility (even likelihood) that his proposal would be defeated in Congress.
Before Russia’s latest gambit to forestall a U.S. strike, Obama was planning to go before the war-weary nation Tuesday night and argue, essentially, for war. In fact, that is what he did do — saying he was merely putting his request for an authorization in abeyance to explore the idea of Syria’s voluntarily giving up its chemical weapons.
The chances of that actually happening, as Secretary of State John Kerry said in floating the idea in London, are essentially nil. Likely as not, Russia came up with the idea to buy time for the Assad regime — but Russian leader Vladimir Putin wouldn’t have done even that had Obama not been bent on military action.
Tuesday night, Obama argued essentially a legal and moral case for the use of force. He mentioned, but did not stress, the stronger national security case: Syria is an ally of Iran and Hezbollah and the world’s failure to punish Syria’s use of weapons of mass destruction will be tantamount to permission to Iran to develop nuclear weapons.
Moreover, Iran is intent on dominating the region — Iraq, Lebanon and the Gulf — and it has to be made clear somewhere that this won’t be tolerated.
Unfortunately, up to now Obama’s handling of Syria — in fact, the whole Mideast region — has been so consistently inept that his leadership is trusted by no one, friend or foe. When he did decide that force had to be used, he went out of his way to minimize how much would be used — to the point where he had to deny it would be more than a “pinprick.”
We may not want to topple the Assad regime — because al-Qaida-affiliated terrorists have been allowed to dominate the opposition — but announcing the fact hardly inspires fear in anyone’s gut.
Syria is not going to give up its chemical weapons. Even if the Russians were inclined to force them to do so, the complexities involved — hassling over U.N. resolutions, sending thousands of inspectors into a civil war zone, transporting thousands of tons of munitions through dangerous territory and verifying that some caches aren’t hidden — are bound to stymie the effort.
I assume that Obama, having seen the need to punish Assad, won't put up with endless delay. So, then, Obama and Congress will be back to the nub: Will Congress authorize force? One benefit of the debate so far has been to expose potential Republican presidential nominees like Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas as being just as force-averse as any Democratic dove.
If Congress ends up refusing to support Obama, will he use force anyway? My guess is he won't, and the Assad-Iran-Hezbollah axis, plus Putin, will win this round.
The next one, the big one, will unfold within a year: Do we let Iran have a bomb or not?