President Barack Obama stood firm against Syria today, but backed away from the logic of war. It’s a neat ploy that might just avert what seemed a stampede toward disaster.
Sure, Obama made the case for attacking Syria to punish the criminal regime there for the use of chemical weapons, and he said he’d decided he should do just that. But he also said he’d seek a vote of approval from Congress, which isn’t likely to be back in session until September 9. While Washington pundits say that’s a roll of the dice, it’s really a kicking of the can. In one of the more revealing lines he uttered in the Rose Garden today, Obama said the kind of attacks he’s got in mind could wait days, weeks, even a month and be just as effective.
A look at the calendar shows that several critical opportunities for politics and diplomacy, and perhaps even the development of a more coherent strategy present themselves in coming days. Obama will be meeting with the leaders of the 20 richest and most powerful countries in the world in Russia this coming week. On September 17, the United Nations General Assembly convenes.
The threat of military action – vague as it is, limited as it is – will focus the attention of all these critical forums. In the meantime, the UN weapons inspectors, who’ve just made their exit (one is tempted to say escape) from Syria will present the results of their investigation. Even if they don’t point the finger officially at the Assad regime, it will be understood that they’ve confirmed its guilt.
In fact, this moment is reminiscent of September 2002, when President George W. Bush threatened war in order, he said, to make the international community face up to its responsibility to make sure Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The result was the imposition of the most draconian inspections regime in history. Bush used the same tactic to persuade members of the House and Senate (among them John Kerry and Hillary Clinton) that he was threatening war to have a better chance making peace.
The difference is that the Bush administration, as we now know, was lying when it said it did not want to invade Iraq. Bush never really had any other intention. (In Iraq, the UN inspectors proved again and again that Saddam did not have those weapons, but Bush and his team refused to listen.)
Obama, for many reasons, not the least of them the mood of the American public after the futile eight-year occupation of Iraq, really does not want a new war in the Middle East.
So, is this postponement an extension of Bashar al-Assad’s license to kill? No. Not really. In fact, not at all. The kind of limited, punitive attack that has been proposed and that Obama suggested he has approved would have opened the door to new atrocities. As former U.S. Ambassador to Syria (and Iraq and Afghanistan) Ryan Crocker told the New York Times, a likely response by Assad would be new provocations, then escalation on both sides: Assad “continues on in defiance — maybe he even launches another chemical attack to put a stick in our eye — and then what?” Crocker said. “Because once you start down this road, it’s pretty hard to get off it and maintain political credibility.”
Now, Assad may be more inclined to rethink his use of chemical weapons, at least in the short term, lest he bolster Obama’s case in Congress and at the United Nations.
We should all be relieved for now. We should all be relieved. The crisis is not over, but the disaster has been pushed back.