In his White House address last night, President Barack Obama laid out a clear case to Americans for upholding the international taboo against the use of chemical weapons in Syria. He had the right argument -- just the wrong audience.
Obama is no longer asking the U.S. Congress for an immediate vote to support missile strikes against Syria, in retaliation for the Aug. 21 sarin-gas attack that killed more than 1,400 civilians near Damascus. Now, the people who face an imminent choice on Syria don’t work in Congress or even live in the U.S.
Until now, the rest of the world, always distrustful of U.S. actions, has had legitimate reasons to oppose a strike -- from an aversion to the unilateral use of force to worries that military action would only further destabilize the region and cause more death and suffering. But there are no good arguments against mounting a strong international effort to destroy Syria’s chemical stockpiles. Granted, doing so in the midst of a civil war would be an unprecedented challenge, yet success would bring the world a giant step closer to eliminating these barbarous weapons. That’s the case Obama should be making to the world.
Too much ink has been spilled on the question of where this latest diplomatic wrinkle originated, whether from a slip of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s tongue or some nefarious confab between Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin. In his speech, Obama characterized the initiative as a Russian gambit, something to be poked and prodded suspiciously while keeping U.S. warships hovering off the Syrian shoreline.
Instead he should broaden the conversation beyond the U.S. and Russia, to all those nations that support the ban on chemical weapons yet have opposed unilateral U.S. action to enforce it. China, for one, has every reason to rid the world of poison gas. Its people were victims in World War II, and its unpredictable neighbor North Korea possesses chemical stockpiles that may be bigger than Syria’s. A Middle East with fewer weapons of mass destruction would unquestionably be a more stable source of oil and gas to fuel the Chinese economy.
Beijing’s concerns, supposedly, are that any action be taken within an international framework and not be aimed at regime change in Damascus. Both of those demands now suit U.S. purposes, too. As we have argued, the best way to ensure that Putin and Assad are not bluffing is to bind them to a United Nations timetable for surrendering Syria’s chemical-weapons arsenal, verified by UN inspectors and authorized under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which allows for the use of force.
The Chinese might resist that last condition. But their interests clearly lie in favor of a strong resolution that defuses the threat of unilateral American action. Other skeptical nations, too, would gain the benefit of constraining the U.S. within the bounds of a multilateral effort, as well as potentially eliminating one of the world’s last undeclared stores of chemical weapons. A total of 188 nations are parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention. If Syria came on board through this deal, only six would remain outside.
Yes, in this scenario the U.S. would have to give up the option of using missile strikes to promote regime change in Damascus. But, as Obama said, his goals in Syria have always been more “modest” than that. The focus should remain on eliminating the threat of chemical weapons.
Even if this diplomatic game began as a “Russian initiative,” Obama now has an opportunity to make it his. The onus should be on Putin and Assad and China’s Xi Jinping to explain why, if they are sincere, they would object to stringent UN enforcement of the disarmament process.
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