September 16, 2013

“And I think what the Iranians understand is that the nuclear issue is a far larger issue for us than the chemical weapons issue, that the threat against Israel that a nuclear Iran poses is much closer to our core interests.”

So spoke President Obama on Sunday, explaining to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that Iran should take no comfort from America’s deciding not to use military force against Syria for its use of chemical weapons.

What struck me about the comment was the gulf between Obama’s matter-of-fact minimizing of the relative significance of chemical weapons in Syria and his rhetoric about those weapons not even a week earlier.

“The images from this massacre are sickening,” Obama told the nation on Sept. 10. “Men, women, children lying in rows, killed by poison gas. Others foaming at the mouth, gasping for breath. A father clutching his dead children, imploring them to get up and walk. On that terrible night, the world saw in gruesome detail the terrible nature of chemical weapons, and why the overwhelming majority of humanity has declared them off-limits — a crime against humanity, and a violation of the laws of war. Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria, along with our leadership of a world where we seek to ensure that the worst weapons will never be used.”

So it is a crime against humanity — but a far smaller issue for America than Iran’s nuclear weapons program, and apparently not all that close “to our core interests.” No wonder even the president’s supporters in Congress are perplexed.

Fred Hiatt is the editorial page editor of The Post. He writes editorials for the newspaper and a biweekly column that appears on Mondays. He also contributes to the PostPartisan blog.