Obama Rescues Assad

Updated September 10, 2013, 8:04 p.m. ET

The President lets Putin outmaneuver him on Syrian chemical arms.

What could be worse for America’s standing in the world than a Congress refusing to support a President’s proposal for military action against a rogue regime that used WMD? Here’s one idea: A U.S. President letting that rogue be rescued from military punishment by the country that has protected the rogue all along.

That’s where President Obama now finds himself on Syria after he embraced Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s offer to take custody of Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons. The move may rescue Mr. Obama and Congress from the political agony of a vote on a resolution to authorize a military strike on Syria. But the diplomatic souk is now open, and Mr. Obama has turned himself into one of the junior camel traders.

What a fiasco. Secretary of State John Kerry, of all people, first floated this escape route for Assad on Monday in Europe where he was supposed to be rallying diplomatic support for a strike. The remark appeared to be off-the-cuff, but with Mr. Kerry and this Administration you never know. In any case before Mr. Kerry’s plane had landed in the U.S., Russia’s foreign minister had leapt on the idea and proposed to take custody of Assad’s chemical arsenal to forestall U.S. military action.

The White House should have rebuffed the offer given Russia’s long protection of Assad at the United Nations—a fact noted with scorn on Monday by Mr. Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice. Instead Mr. Obama endorsed the Russian gambit as what “could potentially be a significant breakthrough.” The Senate immediately called off its Wednesday vote on the military resolution. By Tuesday Assad had accepted the offer that he hopes will spare him from a military strike.

France will press for a U.N. Security Council resolution supposedly for U.N. inspectors to supervise the dismantling of Syria’s stockpiles, though Russia will no doubt try to put itself in the lead inspecting role. On Tuesday Russia was even objecting to a French draft that would blame the Syrian government for using chemical weapons. Mr. Putin also insisted the U.S. must first disavow any military action in Syria, even as he and Iran make no such pledge.

On second thought, fiasco is too kind for this spectacle. Russia has publicly supported Assad’s denials that he used sarin gas, but we are now supposed to believe it will thoroughly scrub Syria of those weapons. We are also supposed to believe Assad will come clean about the weapons he has long denied having and still denies using.

Oh, and we can be confident of this because U.N. or Russian inspectors or someone will be able to locate the entire chemical arsenal, pack up arms that require enormous care in transport, and then monitor future compliance in the continuing war zone that is Syria.

Even if you believe this will happen, or is even possible, Assad will emerge without punishment for having used chemical weapons. He can also be confident that there will be no future Western military action against him. Mr. Obama won’t risk another ramp-up to war given the opposition at home and abroad to this effort.

Assad will also know he can unleash his conventional forces anew against the rebels, and Iran and Russia will know they can arm him with impunity. The rebels had better brace themselves for a renewed assault. At the very least, Mr. Obama should compensate for his diplomatic surrender by finally following through on his June promise to arm and train the moderate Free Syrian Army. Otherwise he runs the risk of facilitating an Assad-Iran-Russian triumph.

The alacrity with which Mr. Obama embraced Russia’s offer suggests a President who was looking for his own political escape route. His campaign to win congressional support has lost ground in the week since he needlessly blundered into proposing it. His effort to rally international support foundered last week at the G-20, where Mr. Putin looked dominant, and Mr. Obama’s approval rating has been falling at home.

In his Tuesday speech, Mr. Obama tried to put his best face on all of this. He took credit for it by claiming that his threat of “unbelievably small” military force, as Mr. Kerry advertised it, induced Assad to see the light. He claimed that he had personally floated the idea of international monitoring of Syria’s weapons. But this admission merely underscores how eager Mr. Obama is to find a Syria exit short of having to follow through on his military threats. His speech amounted to a call to support a military strike that his actions suggest he desperately wants to avoid.

The world will see through this spin. A British commentator in the Telegraph on Monday called this “the worst day for U.S. and wider Western diplomacy since records began,” and that’s only a mild exaggeration. A weak and inconstant U.S. President has been maneuvered by America’s enemies into claiming that a defeat for his Syria policy is really a triumph.

The Iranians will take it as a signal that they can similarly trap Mr. Obama in a diplomatic morass that claims to have stopped their nuclear program. Israel will conclude the same and will now have to decide if it must risk a solo strike on Tehran. America’s friends and foes around the world will recalculate the risks ahead in the 40 dangerous months left of this unserious Presidency.

A version of this article appeared September 11, 2013, on page A14 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Obama Rescues Assad.

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