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posted: 9/12/2013 8:22 AM

Editorial: The president's reasonable opening on Syria crisis

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  • President Barack Obama speaks during a televised address at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday.

    President Barack Obama speaks during a televised address at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday.

The Daily Herald Editorial Board

We said last Sunday that President Obama has a big and critical job of persuading Congress and the American people of the need for a military strike in Syria. After Tuesday night's nationally televised address, he still has. But at the same time, he's also made a start worth celebrating.

With the Russian proposal to take control of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile -- almost surely a result of the president's determination to strike militarily -- Obama has steered the crisis, at least for the moment, away from bombing raids and back to the negotiating table.

It well may be said that the Russian intervention simply bought the president time to sell the nation on his desire for punitive action against Syria. But it provided other benefits as well, not the least of which was the ability to demonstrate to the country and the world that America does not have a hair trigger on matters in the Middle East, that we are willing -- even eager -- to listen to reason.

At the same time, it did not foreclose the option of using our military might to enforce our commitment to ban the use of chemical weapons in war. Russia and Syria may be trying to blunt that possibility through their opposition of the French-sponsored resolution in the United Nations, but of course, it can never be removed from the table. Whether now or a couple of weeks from now constitute the right time frame for an attack on Syria can be and is a worthwhile topic of debate, but removing the option entirely simply eliminates the only means of enforcing any agreement on Syria's chemical arsenal and likely the one measure that got Syrian President Bashar Assad's attention.

For Obama's part, he made legitimate progress toward persuading Americans of the value of a strike. His refusal to consider sending troops was categorical. His promise that any strike or strikes would have a specific and limited strategic objective was appropriate. His presentation of the moral case for punishing Syria -- conjuring those images of writhing and gasping children -- was compelling.

But his explanation of the practical case for carrying out action against Syria left room for development. Despite his declaration to the contrary, it's not clear that "our ideals and principles" and much less our national security "are at stake in Syria."

At the center of this crisis is a key question the president asked at the end of his speech: "What kind of world will we live in if the United States of America sees a dictator brazenly violate international law with poison gas and we choose to look the other way?" It is a reality of world politics that America has looked "the other way" from numerous humanitarian crimes in the past, but the Neville Chamberlain policy in the prelude to World War II also demonstrated that circumstances sometimes exist when we cannot afford to embolden tyrants.

Whether the Syrian atrocity represents one of those circumstances is a case that remains to be proven, but at least Obama now has pulled the issue back from the brink of a missile attack and onto the negotiating table, which offers the promise of a solution much more in America's, and the world's, interest.

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