Three Paths Ahead on Syria

If, as appears increasingly likely, there is an extended international debate–quite possibly at the United Nations Security Council–over an effort to remove or supervise the Assad regime’s chemical weapons, then the immediate question for the Obama administration is what to do about the highly endangered use-of-force resolutions it has placed before Congress.

There are three apparent options:

(1) Press forward with the original resolution, at least in the Senate, on grounds that “keeping the pressure on Syria” is the best and only way to encourage Syrian cooperation with a non-military “solution.” This seems to be the administration’s official position as of this very moment.

(2) Come up with an amended resolution that explicitly makes the authorization for military action contingent on the failure of a diplomatic initiative to remove or control chemical weapons within a given time-frame (45 days). This is the approach being worked on by Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Heidi Heitkamp, apparently in close consultation with the White House.

(3) Take credit for the new peace initiatives and hold off on votes in Congress indefinitely, while maintaining the president is willing and able to strike at any time with or without congressional authorization.

At this point I see no evidence the White House is going with the third approach, but I sure would if I were in their position. Yeah, you can say the French/Russian peace initiative will enable Obama to say tonight that being willing to go to war is the only way to get peace, but the problem with public opinion on Syria is that Americans aren’t sure anything that does or doesn’t happen there is worth the risk of war. The Manchin/Heitkamp approach doesn’t address this problem, either, and is certain to repel Republicans who don’t want the “fight” with Syria limited to the chemical weapons issue and/or don’t want a multilateral “solution.”

If the developments since yesterday don’t justify putting a quick “pause” on the whole enterprise for a few days–including the president’s planned speech tonight–then I don’t know what would. But I guess it’s now too late for that. Maybe Obama should speak for a few minutes and then turn to his “Secretary of Explaining Stuff,” Bill Clinton, to lay it all out.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.