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Time for courage in Washington

Updated: October 11, 2013 6:12AM

The best argument for President Barack Obama’s tough stance over Syria emerged Monday with a surprise proposal from Russia for the United Nations to take control of Syria’s chemical weapons and to destroy them.

Without doubt, there would be no such development without the threat of a U.S. military strike to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for using sarin gas to kill 1,400 men, women and children.

It will take days, maybe weeks, to determine how real and how achievable this idea is. Russian President Vladimir Putin could be helping Assad buy time in his standoff with Washington. Putin could see the proposal as a means to save his only ally in the Middle East. The international community will be negotiating with —and in a sense legitimizing — the Assad regime, which wouldn’t benefit the rebels.

Then there’s the question of whether the whole idea is even feasible. Cataloguing and removing Assad’s weapons in the middle of a civil war may be an impossible task. Would embittered rebels agree to a cease-fire so the U.N. could do its job? Would the dictator be honest in disclosing all his stockpile, or might he try to hide some weapons as a hedge against possible battlefield reverses?

Obviously, I remain skeptical about the whole idea. But it has rescued Obama and Congress from a tough vote. All indications have been that the president’s request for authorization for a military strike was headed for defeat in the House. In the Senate, opponents of intervention have been increasingly vocal. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid jumped at the possibility of a diplomatic resolution to postpone a vote on Obama’s request that had been scheduled for Wednesday.

The possibility that the Russian proposal will collapse upon closer inspection means Obama, in his address to the nation Tuesday, still must make the case for Congress to authorize military action if needed.

The reason for intervention goes beyond the obvious case that failure to do so could erode a century-old consensus against using these horrific weapons. Assad — and others, including terrorists if they can get them — would see the way open for using chemical agents repeatedly.

A red line drawn by a president cannot be ignored. To do so would undermine global confidence in other red lines, like the one by Obama and Congress against Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. Is America serious, our friends and foes would wonder, about Iran? History tells us uncertainty can lead to miscalculation and misery. In 1950 the United States allowed a mixed message about whether it would defend South Korea, convincing North Korea, and its allies the Soviet Union and China, that it could invade the south. The result: a war killing 36,000 Americans.

Obama must explain exactly what he wants to do if a diplomatic solution doesn’t happen. An attack on Assad’s armed forces demonstrating that America has the ability to wipe out his military advantage in the civil war should convince Assad that further use of chemical weapons would jeopardize his regime and his life.

Now, thanks to the Russian proposal, Obama has an additional argument for his position: A “yes” vote on military authorization will keep pressure on Assad to give up these weapons.


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