Obama's Syria Policy Not Off the Hook Yet

Tonight's speech will be a lot easier—but a Syria solution is still not forthcoming.

President Obama will address the nation tonight. It is a speech that was never supposed to happen.

After the collapse of progress in Libya, the president's signature foreign-policy accomplishment, capped by the tragedy of Benghazi, the White House changed its Middle East playbook. The new plan: get involved in that region’s troubles as little as possible.

But last August, the president went off script. He issued his now famous "red line" comment regarding chemical weapons in Syria, mostly because he expected Syria would never dare cross it—i.e., he would never have to enforce it. When Assad allegedly crossed the line the White House found itself in the uncomfortable place of having to do something.

Initially Mr. Obama planned a mini-version of Libya: a no-boots-on-the-ground assault specifically designed not to implement regime change—the outcome that brought him so much criticism after Benghazi. Syria would be different. He would go in and get out before Congress could even get back to D.C. from recess.

But when the British bailed on participating, the Oval Office had second thoughts. It’s lonely leading from behind—or in front—if no one’s around. So the president decided to dump the problem on a skeptical Congress.

For the most part, the testimony and briefings offered by administration official have fallen flat on the Hill. And the American public remains, at best, leery of the whole idea.

Hence, the need for tonight’s address to the nation. Pity the president's speechwriter. Yesterday morning, the pressure was really on. This couldn’t be another check-the-box speech like the one delivered on the anniversary of Dr. King’s March on Washington. This one would have to be powerful and persuasive if it were to give the White House the political cover it wants.

But yesterday afternoon, the speechwriter caught a break. Russia stepped in with a proposal to put Syrian chemical weapons under "international" control. This need not be a “make or break” speech after all. Thanks to Moscow, the speechwriter can focus on how the President will give this "diplomatic" solution time to work.

But if that is the speech that the president delivers tonight, here are some things Mr. Obama won't be mentioning.

Putting Syria's chemical weapons under international control sounds great, but is completely impractical. Syria is in the middle of a civil war. Gaining control of those weapons would require a significant military force, with a robust mandate and prodigious logistical support. The force would have to be on the ground, and it would have to avoid becoming a target, combatant or hostage in the conflict.

Missions like this—but involving far less dangerous and volatile weapons—have been tried before, in places like Bosnia and Lebanon. They didn't work out so well. On the eve of the second Gulf War, a similar scheme was proposed for Iraq and rejected as unworkable.

Obama's speech can also be filled with all the usual promises that the initiative will not just “trust” but “verify" that the entire chemical arsenal is really out of Assad's hands. But that’s a promise that’s all but impossible to make. When dealing with a desperate dictator, who can know for sure?

The president may still ask Congress for an authorization to use military force (AUMF). He may argue that it is his threat of force that has brought us to the point where even Russia seems willing to nudge Syria toward abiding by "international norms." That would be a face-saving measure for the administration, but it would be problematic for many in Congress.

A properly constructed AUMF should give a White House flexibility and discretion in how to fulfill the duties of commander-in-chief. If international controls don’t work, and the president decides to strike anyway, a proper AUMF would not be a suitable check to the escalating use of force by the administration.

The use of force is not in U.S. interests, yet any proper AUMF could establish a slippery slope that might lead to increasing U.S. involvement in Syria’s bloody civil war. Once an AUMF is approved, Congress’s only options are to withdraw it or cut off funding for the mission—both very difficult acts once U.S. personnel are decisively engaged in military action.

That reality makes giving the White House a properly constructed AUMF for Syria very ill-advised. Odds are Congress will instead give the president—nothing.

Mr. Obama may be just fine with getting no vote from the Congress. He might be content with standing on the sidelines while Assad pays no real penalty. After all, that is what the president wanted in the first place—not to get involved.