President Barack Obama’s ad-libbed warning that Syria must not cross a chemical weapons “red line” first boxed him into a threat to attack Syria and then tangled him in a congressional showdown he seemed destined to lose. Then an offhand remark from Secretary of State John Kerry led to the current diplomatic opening and apparent Capitol Hill reprieve.
If it seems that unscripted messages are the most potent elements driving Syria policy, the president’s prepared speech Tuesday night did not alter that impression. Mr. Obama’s remarks won few converts, if any. Fortunately for him, he no longer needed to give a bravura speech. In fact, it could be argued that he no longer needed to give a speech at all.
The White House credibly can claim that Mr. Obama’s threat to strike Syria with or without congressional approval increased pressure on Russia and Syrian President Bashar Assad to pursue a diplomatic alternative. Given the many obstacles, however, that small victory for Mr. Obama might be temporary.
The United States and allies like France want a United Nations Security Council ultimatum that requires Syria to divest itself of chemical weapons and backs up the ultimatum with the threat of force. Russia, with a vote on the council, opposes any such threat. As a practical matter, it might be impossible to catalog Syria’s weapons, safely destroy them and make sure that Assad can’t acquire new ones. So what happens if diplomacy falters?
Presumably, Mr. Obama again would try to make his case for force to Congress and the public. If so, he will have to do better than his Tuesday speech. It suffered from the same deficiencies that crippled the White House campaign before the postponed congressional debate.
If the United States lets Assad use chemical weapons with impunity, Mr. Obama warned, the Syrian dictator will use the weapons again, and like-minded dictators will emulate him. “Over time,” the president said, “our troops would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield. And it could be easier for terrorist organizations to obtain these weapons, and to use them to attack civilians.”
Mr. Obama emphasized that Assad’s forces used gas to kill children. “America is not the world’s policeman,” he said. “Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act.”
Missing is a convincing argument that American troops — and even American children — are at risk from Syria. If they are in danger, how fortunate that such dire threats can be countered with only “modest” effort and risk. Does the president mean that we would do nothing if it required greater risk and effort to protect the country? Given the threat he alleges, how could the president promise — as he did — not to send troops? How, exactly, would a limited strike end the threat? And what would happen if it doesn’t?
Everybody hopes that diplomacy works — really works — and Syria verifiably gives up chemical weapons. If not, President Obama once again will be pressed to make his case for an attack. To do that, he’s going to need a better script.
Jac Wilder VerSteeg
for The Post Editorial Board