When President Obama announced earlier this month that he would put aside plans for military strikes against the regime of Bashar al-Assad Syria and instead pursue Russian President Vladimir Putin’s diplomatic option on chemical weapons, many observers believed that Mr. Putin won a great victory. They felt Mr. Obama looked weak and that he lost badly.
There is no question that Obama disappointed the Syrian opposition and their supporters who hoped for immediate air strikes. But critics who say Obama lost foreign-policy ground on the Syria crisis have it just plain wrong. Answering his critics at a United Nations buzzing with Iran’s apparent willingness to negotiate, Obama’s speech to the General Assembly Sept. 24 confirmed that the United States has not altered its foreign-policy priorities. The president insisted on firm action by the UN Security Council to ensure not only Syrian chemical disarmament but also the creation of a new, peaceful, and inclusive Syrian government.
Here are four reasons why Obama’s foreign-policy critics on Syria are mistaken.
The critics misjudge the importance of dismantling Syrian chemical weapons and the impact this move will have on the conflict there. Obama did not bow to the Assad regime and Russia, its principal ally. Rather, the threat of American missile attacks forced Assad to accept international destruction of his chemical weapons, and Obama was pragmatic enough to accept that result and call off the strikes.
Removing chemical weapons from Assad’s grasp weakens the Syrian government in two important ways. It removes the threat that the weapons will be used against the opposition in the future, and it denies the Assad regime one of its most potent weapons on the battlefield. It is hard to see how that strengthens Assad or Russia.
Edward Haley is director of the Center for Human Rights Leadership and W.M. Keck Foundation Professor of International Strategic Studies at Claremont McKenna College.
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