Stepping back from the brink

Stepping back from the brink

President Obama's bombing plan has been called off, but questions surround the announced effort to use diplomacy to strip Syria of chemical weapons.

First, he zigged and then he zagged. Finally, President Obama came to a screeching halt in his run-up to asking Congress to approve his request for authorization to bomb Syria.

Now the entire congressional debate has been put on hold — perhaps permanently — while Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry work with our new best friend, Russian President Vladimir Putin, to strip Syria's Bashar al-Assad of his chemical weapons.

Suffice it to say, if al-Assad is forced to actually give up his chemical weapons store if would be a substantial step forward. But the White House chest-thumping about Obama's intimidation of al-Assad is a tad premature.

Does anyone really think that inspectors will find, remove and then destroy a weapons cache that al-Assad obviously values in the midst of a civil war? The mind reels at the potential game-playing in store for overseers of this proposal.

The good news for President Obama and the country is that his plan to bomb Syria as punishment for using chemical weapons against civilians is now on hold. He clearly was unenthusiastic about the idea, which he forced on himself through ill-advised talk of "red line" violations by Syria, and the public — hence the Congress — was opposed to stepping into another Middle East mess, particularly one with such undefined goals.

But the mystery remains — what really was the U.S. plan, assuming there was one?

If Syria's use of chemicals weapons was really the "moral obscenity" described by Secretary Kerry, why did Kerry state that the proposed bombing would be "unbelievably small"? President Obama subsequently contradicted Kerry's language by stating that U.S. "doesn't do pinpricks" but that there would be no U.S. troops put in Syria.

Almost as an afterthought, supporters of the bomb plan argued that the U.S. must act against Syria because not to act would undermine Obama's credibility in the wake of his repeated warnings that al-Assad must be removed from power and that the U.S. would punish Syria if it used chemical weapons.

Well, al-Assad is still there, fighting to retain his power in a civil war waged against him, at least in, part by al-Qaida. The unsavory nature of the opposition prompted the Obama administration to say that it intended to punish al-Assad, but not so substantially as to give the rebels a significant advantage.

As is often the case in the Middle East, it's the bad guys against the worse guys, and it's hard to tell who is who.

President Obama is certainly correct on one point. Syria's repeated use of chemical weapons against civilians is abhorrent. But abusing civilians is standard operating procedure in the Middle East and elsewhere. For all of Assad's misconduct, he's still a choir boy compared to his bloodthirsty father, and the rebels have shown they're not above pointless killing either.

No one should be fooled into thinking there are any easy answers here. No one should be fooled into thinking that Putin's offer to help is anything other than subterfuge designed to spare his ally Syria. That President Obama and Secretary Kerry grabbed this lifeline shows how perilous a course — both politics and policy — they were on.

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