It seems clear that President Obama has decided to delay any military action against Syria, at least in the short term, in order to pursue the utility of Russia’s offer to persuade the Syrians to get rid of their chemical weapons.
While a non-military solution to the problem would certainly be welcome, it’s difficult not to view the latest developments as just another attempt by the Syrian and Russian governments to push off the day of reckoning, at least until Syrian president Bashar Assad destroys the rebels, at which point U.S. military action would be too late.
However this turns out, President Obama has severely damaged U.S. credibility in the international arena. When he first drew the line in the sand about Syria’s use of chemical weapons, Mr. Obama was talking about the consequences of their use by the Syrian government in its war with the rebels. Yet not only did the president blink and take no action when the line was crossed, he subtly shifted his focus, at the apparent prodding of the Russians, to that of securing Syria’s abandonment of chemical weapons.
We are now in the extraordinary situation where the Russians – who had been marginalized in the Middle East since Israel trounced the Arab world and their Soviet weapons in 1967 and 1973 – have now been reintroduced as a player on a level with the United States.
It’s hardly a surprise, therefore, that Mr. Obama has been seeking to reassure Israel that he is still serious about a military option on the Iranian front should diplomacy fail. High-level discussions are continuing on many levels as the administration attempts to persuade Israel that the U.S. is acting prudently as it reaches out to the new Iranian president and will insist on concrete action regarding the Iranian nuclear program.
War is not pleasant, and avoiding it is certainly an imperative. But when the choice comes down to limited military action now or more devastating war later on, policymaking must be based on realistic assessments rather than wishful thinking or failures of nerve. After all, that’s why people stand up when a president walks into a room.