Whether Barack Obama
blinked or simply faced political reality, the president's strategy on Syria now seems to be a waiting game, shelving plans for military action in favor of a diplomatic settlement, at least for the time being.
Facing growing opposition in Congress, even among Democrats, to his plan for punitive action against Bashar al-Assad, the president said Tuesday that diplomacy seemed to offer an alternative that would enable Syria to relinquish its chemical weapons without the use of force. He asked congressional leaders to postpone a vote authorizing military action against Assad.
If diplomacy fails, however, the U.S. must "be ready to respond," he warned.
This latest turn of events apparently involves a diplomatic breakthrough brokered by Russia, Syria's patron, that would put Assad's chemical weapons under international control. Presumably that would prevent Assad from using them again, and ultimately they would be destroyed. With the weapons verified and secured, the U.S. would forego military action.
There are many "ifs" in this scenario, one of the biggest being cooperation with Vladimir Putin's Russia. Obama is at odds with the Russian president over Moscow's decision to grant asylum to U.S. defector Edward Snowden, an action that so angered Washington that Obama canceled a summit with Putin and snubbed him during the G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg. Now Putin may be the key to any agreement with Syria.
Assad, at this point, also holds the trump cards in any deal and can't be expected to relinquish them without getting something in return. That could very well be assurances that the U.S. won't intervene on behalf of the Syrian opposition in the civil war there. The status quo is a win for Assad, even if he has to surrender his chemical arsenal.
And, if diplomacy fails, will Congress, in fact, back military action against Syria? That is far from certain.
"America is not the world's policeman," Obama said Tuesday, yet his insistence on punishing Assad for his use of chemical weapons within his own borders because "our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria," seems to argue for Washington assuming that role.
There are many who would argue that Syria's civil war is not a matter of national security, regardless of Assad's actions. A decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, which has cost thousands of American lives and sapped our treasury and resolve, poses a formidable argument against another military adventure in that region.
So Obama has changed strategy -- again -- leaving us to wait and see if this latest plan will work.