Democratic Senator Joe Manchin announced his opposition yesterday to military strikes on Syria, at least as the situation stands now.  Instead, he pressed Obama to play out the string on diplomacy with a 45-day ultimatum to Bashar Assad to sign the chemical-weapons ban and presumably either give up or destroy his stockpiles.  New York Times reporter David Sanger told Morning Joe that Obama may end up trying that tactic (via The Corner):

The Obama administration might consider a plan involving an ultimatum to Syrian president Bashar Assad as a diplomatic alternative to U.S. military action, according to New York Times chief Washington correspondent David Sanger. Assad would be presented with a 45-day window to sign a chemical-weapons ban in order to avoid a missile strikes.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if you see the president end up having to go some kind of version of that route,” Sanger said on Morning Joe today. “The idea was to basically put a diplomatic action and a test ahead of Assad before the U.S., and before the president, had an authorization for a strike.”

Host Joe Scarborough added that the 45-day window would also allow the U.S. “to actually come up with” an effective military plan if it was ultimately necessary.

Manchin and fellow Senate Democrat Heidi Heitkamp have already floated a resolution in the Senate to this effect, which complicates matters significantly for Obama.  Even if the Senate never takes up Manchin-Heitkamp, its very existence reminds both the Senate and the House of the rush to military action taken in this instance — and of the utter lack of action from Obama between his “red line” statement last year to the August 21st chemical-weapons attack now.  It raises three questions, each more embarrassing than the next to the White House:

  • Why hasn’t Obama already demanded this from Assad?
  • Why hasn’t Obama tried to rally the UN Security Council to demand this from Assad over the past year?
  • Why hasn’t Obama made Assad’s lack of support for the chemical-weapons ban a central issue?

If Obama wanted to force Russia and China to act, this was the play he should have made last year instead of boasting about “red lines.” Neither Russia nor China could have defended Assad’s nose-thumbing of this pact, and Obama might have had the upper hand internationally as a result.

Now, however, this is just another reminder of Obama’s lack of strategic and tactical thinking, both in diplomacy and military matters.  If Obama issues this ultimatum now, it won’t be seen as strength but as a further retreat.  Russia and China might play along anyway just to buy more time, but Obama can’t demand support on Tuesday for military action and then put the assault on hold for another 45 days and expect to hold even the thin support he has at the moment.  It would be a disaster — but the fact that he hasn’t even bothered to play this card is an almost equal political disaster, too.