Obama Muddles Through on Syria

Presidential address fails to resolve the inconsistencies of Obama's Syria policy.

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President Obama's policy toward Syria has become a muddle, riddled with mixed messages, contradictions and doubts.

This was illustrated by his address to the nation Tuesday night. For most of the 16-minute speech, he made the case for U.S. intervention in Syria because the regime of President Bashar Assad has allegedly used chemical weapons in an ongoing civil war. The flashpoint was a poison-gas attack near Damascus Aug. 21 that killed more than 1,400 people, including hundreds of children.

Obama said this violation of international "norms" could not go unpunished, and he declared that only the United States has the moral authority and military might to respond.

[READ: Obama Begs Public for Trust in Syria Plan]

But then he announced a pause in his moves toward confrontation so he could evaluate a new offer from Russia to have Syria surrender its chemical weapons to international monitors. Obama said he wanted the House and Senate to delay votes on authorizing military force until he could figure out whether to take the Russian initiative seriously. And with Obama's concurrence, those votes on authorizing force were postponed indefinitely.

President Barack Obama, shown here addressing the nation on Sept. 10, 2013, heads to New York Monday for the U.N. General Assembly.
President Barack Obama, shown here addressing the nation on Sept. 10, 2013, heads to New York Monday for the U.N. General Assembly.

This seemed to be a helpful development for Obama because he was likely to lose the House vote, and the Senate might have gone against him, too.

Part of the problem is that Obama's Syria policy has been confusing at best, and there is little public support for it, according to the opinion polls.

[OPINION: Obama's Syria Speech Too Little Leadership, Too Late]

Obama said during his first term that Assad had to give up power. Now Obama is considering the initiative by Russia that doesn't call for Assad to leave office at all, and in fact would involve Assad as a signatory to the deal the Russians are cooking up.

"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?" Obama said. "Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria, along with our leadership of a world where we seek to ensure that the worst weapons will never be used."

Despite those moral and practical arguments, Obama insists that he isn't trying to overthrow Assad and his attack plan would be carefully restricted.

[READ: Congress Relieved to Take 'Pause' on Syria]

Obama said he had ordered U.S. military forces to "maintain their current posture to keep the pressure on Assad and to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails." But he set no deadline for the diplomacy to work. He didn't say how he would ensure that Russia and Syria, allies for many years, were not simply playing a delaying game to take the pressure off Assad and reduce the likelihood of U.S. military strikes. Nor did he explain how the chemical weapons would be collected and possibly destroyed in the middle of a devastating Syrian civil war.

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  • Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com and "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." Ken Walsh can be reached at kwalsh@usnews.com and on Facebook and Twitter.