September 10, 2013

Even though the last 10 days have been a bit of a mess for the administration, President Obama has been rather clear on what he wants vis-a-vis Syria. Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad must be held accountable for violating international norms by attacking his own people with chemical weapons. Without question, Obama’s threat of military action by the United States yielded incredible results, especially over the last day or so. Still, that threat must remain to ensure that Assad is held responsible.

Secretary of State John Kerry
Secretary of State John Kerry (Alastair Grant/Associated Press)

Secretary of State John Kerry’s hypothetical scenario of Assad handing over his chemical stockpiles to the international community got the ball rolling. Russian President Vladimir Putin, Syria’s superpower patron, moved fast to turn Kerry’s musings into reality at the United Nations. That he and his Russian counterpart will be meeting in Geneva on Thursday to hash out details face-to-face was an impossibility at the start of this week.

As a result of the flurry at the U.N., Assad did something he had never done before. He acknowledged for the first time that he had chemical weapons. Sure, everyone in the international community knew it to be true and from whom he got them.  But when Charlie Rose asked him about them, the dictator demurred. “Again, you always imply that we have chemical weapons,” Assad told the venerable American journalist.

This afternoon the Syrian foreign minister said, “We are ready to inform about the location of chemical weapons, halt the production of chemical weapons and also show these objects to representatives of Russia, other states and the United Nations.”

All this activity to prevent U.S. tomahawks from streaking across Syrian skies puts Obama on better footing to make the case for military action when he addresses the nation tonight. A nation that is against any kind of action to smack Assad.

President Obama at the Capitol. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
President Obama at the Capitol. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The president who rose to power on a wave of opposition to the U.S. war in Iraq and has been cautious about exercising American power in a region that has seen way too much of it can now make a vigorous case for the need for a diplomatic solution. But watch him couple that dovish appeal with a clear warning that the patience of the international community in general and the United States in particular will be limited.

As The Post editorial argued today, only the threat of military action forced Syria to do what was unthinkable just a few days ago. And it is the threat of military action that should guard against dithering by Putin and Assad now. If those two decide to test U.S. resolve with endless delays — or, worse, if Assad uses chemical weapons again — they will only strengthen Obama’s hand against them at home and abroad.

So, who cares if this happened by accident or in a messy way? The key thing is that it happened.

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Jonathan Capehart is a member of the Post editorial board and writes about politics and social issues for the PostPartisan blog.