It’s unlikely anyone in the foreign policy or national security leadership of the Obama administration got a whole lot of sleep last night. With the ground beneath its Syria policy rapidly shifting, potentially in the direction of a multilateral non-military option for removing chemical weapons from the area, the context for the president’s speech to the nation tonight, and for his plea to Congress for a use-of-force resolution, has fundamentally changed (unless you believe the sudden Russian initiative triggered by an “offhand” comment from John Kerry was all planned in advance, which is actually semi-plausible). With both congressional and public sentiment moving pretty hard in an adverse direction up until yesterday, leaving a House vote on a use-of-force resolution looking doomed and a Senate vote problematic, the president will almost certainly link the Russian initiative (and/or a subsequent French request that the United Nations Security Council take responsibility for supervision of Syrian chemical weapons) to the need to maintain a credible military threat to bring the Syrians to heel. So the case for war becomes (in theory, at least) the case for peace.
This is awkward mainly because of the timing, and the possibility that a collapse in diplomacy could reduce rather than increase momentum for U.S. military action. Harry Reid has momentarily delayed initial Senate action on a use-of-force resolution until tomorrow, and could delay it again. But unless the president takes the unlikely step of postponing his speech-to-the-nation, he’s going to have to explain a very complicated situation in clear terms to a skeptical nation.
If the administration and its supporters are suffering from vertigo, so, too are its Republican enemies. Having convinced themselves for various reasons (ranging from sympathy for the “Christian-protecting” Assad to simple non-interventionism to fear that Obama won’t kill enough people and thus will undermine regional U.S. influence) to oppose war, opponents of the use-of-force resolution must now oppose the threat of war as a tool of diplomacy. For many GOPers, that’s not hard since they hate multilateral diplomacy even more than they hate “no-win-wars.” But what may unhinge them completely is the possibility that Obama could turn what looked certain to be a huge and probably losing gamble on a course of convincing Congress to authorize a strike that would not satisfy anyone into a successful use of force as an inducement to diplomacy in support of international norms. Republicans may be divided and uncertain on who they perceive as friends and enemies in the Middle East, but they’re not about to “go soft” on their great enemy in Washington.