As if the nation may have been dozing, President Barack Obama sent an email to his constituents yesterday explaining his position on the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
Rather than pushing ahead with a surgical strike in Syria—“a shot across the bow”—as many expected he would several days ago, the president informed the world on Tuesday evening that diplomacy was the best tactic at the moment.
“I’ve asked the leaders of Congress to postpone a vote to authorize the use of force while we pursue this diplomatic path,” Obama said after delivering a passionate description of the atrocities committed by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its use of chemical weapons during the ongoing civil war. “I’m sending Secretary of State John Kerry to meet his Russian counterpart on Thursday, and I will continue my own discussions with President [Vladimir] Putin. At the same time, we’ll work with two of our closest allies—France and the United Kingdom—to put forward a resolution at the U.N. Security Council requiring Assad to give up his chemical weapons and to ultimately destroy them under international control.”
Suddenly, the president’s graphic portrayal of the killing of more than 1,400 people, 400 of them children, in a sarin gas attack on Aug. 21 by Assad (and he noted that he had proof it launched the attacks) morphed into a speech asking Congress to delay its vote to see if Syria and Russia were sincere in their offers to bring the chemical stockpile under international control.
“Meanwhile,” the president continued, “I’ve ordered our military to maintain their current posture to keep the pressure on Assad and to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails.” There is a general feeling that Obama’s threat to attack Syria brought about the game change.
The main question now is whether diplomacy—largely dependent on the trust and word of Russia and Syria—has any chance of success, because Putin has previously charged the Obama administration with “being liars,” and Assad has, on many occasions, disavowed having any chemical weapons, and now he admits there are some.
And even if there are stockpiles of chemical weapons, how many are there, where are they and to what extent can they be removed and placed under international control in the midst of a raging civil war?
There is no way to predict what the outcome will be, but some of Obama’s supporters are glad he put the matter of war on the back burner, particularly Rep. Charles Rangel. “Military action should be an absolute last resort, used only when the entire nation is fully committed to sending our sons and daughters to fight,” said Rangel, a highly decorated veteran of the Korean conflict. “Therefore, I applaud the president for waiting and seeking congressional approval before launching military strikes. There is no such thing as a ‘limited’ war.
“Involvement in Syria would have led to the loss of innocent life and put our troops at unnecessary risk,” Rangel continued. “After over 6,600 brave soldiers paid the ultimate price for our long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we should not engage in another potential quagmire. America cannot afford another war abroad when the money to pay for missiles could be helping over 7 million American households who are struggling to put food on their tables.”
Many Americans who are adamantly opposed to engaging Syria wonder what will happen if Congress decides to block the president’s call for bombing or missile strikes on Syria. Will he utilize his executive power as other presidents have done in the past, reasoning that Syria has stepped across a “red line”? His detractors charge that for him to enact war because Syria has violated an international norm doesn’t mean he can abrogate the boundaries of international law.
Obama has painted himself into a corner, and it’s to be seen if the diplomatic gambit, the Russian promise, the Syrian admission and Kerry’s flap can rescue his presidency from total ignominy.