In a sober, narrowly framed speech Tuesday night, President Barack Obama argued that deterring chemical weapons use – not regime change – remained the goal of any American military strike in Syria. Ob ama said he would delay a vote in Congress on the issue, seek a UN resolution requiring Assad to give up his chemical weapons and explore Russia’s surprising – and probably - offer to help secure Syria’s chemical weapons.
The speech’s most interesting passage was its final one. On the eve of the 9/11 anniversary, Obama offered a rough outline of a new, more limited vision of America’s role in the world.
“America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong,” Obama said. “But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth.”
Opinion polls show that Americans flatly disagree. If the Russian-Syrian offer to turn over chemical weapons proves insincere, it may shift public opinion but not to a wide extent. Obama has delayed his Syria problem, not eliminated it.
Turning Syria’s chemical weapons over to international control will be extraordinarily difficult and not end the conflict in Syria. But it is a major step forward that should be pursued. For Syrians, it will decrease the likelihood that chemical weapons will be once more used against civilians. For Americans, it will reduce the chance of chemical weapons falling into the hands of jihadists.