Barack Obama has taken his finger off the button. In a nationally televised address this morning our time, the United States President told Congress to postpone a vote authorising the use of force in Syria “while we pursue this diplomatic path”:

“I’m sending Secretary of State John Kerry to met his Russian counterpart on Thursday, and I will continue my own discussions with President Putin. I’ve spoken to the leaders of two of our closest allies, France and the United Kingdom. And we will work together in consultation with Russia and China to put forward a resolution at the UN Security Council requiring [Syrian President Bashar Hafez al-]Assad to give up his chemical weapons and to ultimately destroy them under international control. We’ll also give UN inspectors the opportunity to report their findings about what happened on August 21st. And we will continue to rally support from allies, from Europe to the Americas, from Asia to the Middle East who agree on the need for action. Meanwhile, I’ve ordered our military to maintain their current posture, to keep the pressure on Assad and to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails.”

As Professor Damien Kingsbury writes today, Assad’s sudden willingness to put chemical weapon stockpiles under international (read: Russian) supervision has given Obama a way out:

“More than punish Assad, the US wants to preserve its credibility while extricating itself from a situation it has never wanted to be in and that, on balance, it knows will only get worse.”

American presidents of all colours have a difficult legacy of acting too quickly (George Bush in Iraq) or too late (Bill Clinton in Bosnia). Obama is walking both sides of the street: today he talked in the same paragraph of the might of the US military (“even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver”) and the need for cool heads (“I don’t think we should remove another dictator with force — we learned from Iraq that doing so makes us responsible for all that comes next”).

The rhetoric is comforting. If not to the suffering Syrian people.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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