President Obama’s East Room speech tonight was unusual, and probably unique, because it raised throughout the question: Why are you giving this speech? It was originally conceived as an argument for military action in Syria, but then two things happened in quick succession to make that moot. First, public opinion turned from skeptical to wildly hostile, especially among Republicans, killing any chance of passage in the House. Next, John Kerry, or perhaps Albert Brooks, set off an accidental chain of events that relocated the crisis into the diplomatic realm.
But the case for war is still necessary, since, after all, the diplomacy is only going on as a way of averting military action. The moment Bashar al-Assad loses his fear of a cruise missile strike is the moment diplomacy ceases. And Assad’s eagerness, at least rhetorically, to sign the Chemical Weapons Ban rebuts the commonly made argument that he didn’t fear air strikes and might even welcome them as a unifying event.
Obama briefly made the case that the United States had a national security interest in upholding the international ban on chemical weapons, but the case remains absurd. No enemy states are in position to gain an advantage by using chemical weapons against the United States, nor does the ban on such weapons discourage them from illicitly funneling such weapons to terrorists if they so desire.
The real argument, the one he emphasized at more length, remains persuasive, if marginally so: If we don’t impose a cost on the use of chemical weapons against civilians, then Assad and other dictators will proceed to use them more frequently. Stopping Assad from gassing civilians is a small step in the context of a murderous civil war, but it is something. It was only after laying out the case for war for more than ten minutes that Obama even mentioned the possibilities of diplomacy, and promised to give it a chance, using the threat of strikes as a leverage point.
The sudden onset of diplomacy has produced a widespread skepticism that I find baffling. Remember, the purpose of air strikes is not to topple Assad. It can’t prevent the attack that has already happened. All it can do is prevent him – and, to a lesser extent, future dictators — from using chemical weapons. The skeptical reactions I’ve seen, from the likes of Jeff Goldberg, Julia Ioffe, and Max Fisher all seem to lose sight of this, judging diplomacy against a standard of success higher than the air strikes could possibly have achieved.
Goldberg, for instance, argues that Assad can avoid truly relinquishing his entire chemical weapons stockpile – “All Assad has to do to forever stave off a punitive strike is to keep promising that he's in the middle of giving up his chemical weapons. ” All? That result is the definition of success for air strikes! It’s not as if air strikes had the potential to eliminate his chemical stockpile. In fact, we couldn’t even target the chemical weapons for fear of triggering a wider contamination.
It may be hard to accept the good fortune of the diplomatic initiative simply because it was so weird and random, and Obama’s entire strategy has followed such a winding course. Obama probably never imagined his “red line” comment would lead to a moment when he was delivering a grim East Room speech. Kerry surely never envisioned his loose hypothetical speculation about Assad turning over his arsenal would wind up defining the end of the crisis. But, having arguably blundered into the precipice of war, the administration seems to have indisputably blundered into a promising solution.