President Obama approached his address to the country Tuesday night on Syria in a deep political hole -- one largely of his own digging. During the two weeks that the president and his aides have been arguing for a military response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons, support for a strike among Americans and members of Congress has decreased. That’s largely because Mr. Obama and his administration have offered a stumbling, improvised and often incoherent series of explanations for why military action is needed and what effect it would have. And that was before Monday’s abrupt pivot toward an ad hoc diplomatic initiative to place Syria’s arsenal under international supervision.
Mr. Obama has tried to thread his appeals between assurances that the United States is not entering another Middle East war -- that it is only enforcing an international prohibition against the use of chemical weapons -- and predictions that the strikes will "degrade" the Assad regime’s military strength even as the United States steps up support for rebel forces. At times he and Secretary of State John F. Kerry have sounded high notes of moral outrage about the use of poisonous gas to kill hundreds of children, while at other times Mr. Obama has seemed to sympathize with those who would oppose any action. In one interview, he noted that his wife is a doubter.
When Russia seized on an offhand remark by Mr. Kerry about Syria giving up control over its weapons, the administration expressed deep skepticism that such a diplomatic solution was feasible, then embraced it as an option. Having declared Bashar al-Assad’s regime as criminal and the government of Vladimir Putin as obstructive, the White House now appears prepared to make them its primary interlocutors in a long-shot bid to sequester the chemical agents -- something that Mr. Kerry on Monday said "can’t be done."
Mr. Obama is right to try the disarmament initiative, because of the potential benefit of controlling and eventually eliminating a large and dangerous arsenal -- and because a Syrian refusal to comply would provide more solid ground for using force. The administration still wants Congress to approve a resolution authorizing military action, and we agree that is also necessary. Without the threat of U.S. airstrikes, there is no chance that the Assad regime will deliver up its chemical weapons.
To achieve these objectives, however, Mr. Obama needs to articulate a coherent strategy for Syria and the region -- one that clearly identifies and protects the vital U.S. interests at stake. The president says he is seeking a political solution to Syria’s civil war but has not laid out a plausible path for achieving one -- nor for containing the growing threat of al-Qaeda. The State Department promotes negotiations between the regime and rebels, with the participation of Russia and possibly Iran. But the Assad regime will not yield power -- a necessary part of any conceivable deal -- unless the military balance is decisively tipped against it. Mr. Obama must marry his goal of controlling Syria’s weapons with the aim of empowering moderate rebel forces. He should not accept a diplomatic agreement that rules out U.S. military action.