The president never got his timing right. If Obama wanted Congress to approve military action, he should have waited until members returned from their summer recess, rather than allowing them to get ambushed by an angry and ill-informed public in town meetings while the media chewed up his evidence piecemeal on talk TV over the last two weeks. “That was a miscalculation,” says Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. Mike Rogers, the committee chairman, also pointed out, “You can’t really go from a dead stop to full speed. We created our own problem here.”
But now Obama has won a reprieve—thanks to the Russians, of all people, America’s chief antagonists—from what looked like an all-but-certain congressional defeat. In the coming days, the president thus has a chance to avoid what could have been the worst humiliation of his presidency. Indeed, he could even achieve two major victories at once. If Syria, under Russia’s disarmament plan, goes beyond its already startling admission that it possesses chemical weapons (coming only days after Assad’s denials, this is already a victory) and gives its stockpiles up to international inspectors for elimination, it will prove a huge American diplomatic triumph in a region where there haven’t been any U.S. breakthroughs for a very long time.
More than that, though, Obama will also have affirmed a truth that has fallen into doubt in recent years, most of all among Americans themselves: the centrality of the United States in upholding the international order. If Obama’s Syria strategy was marred by uncertainty (in keeping with the war-weary neo-isolationism that now afflicts America), the line he now draws is quite clear. It could even set a foreign policy precedent for future presidents. In his 17-minute speech to the nation Tuesday night, Obama made plain that his policy is at least as much about Iran’s nuclear program—and potential WMD in every other rogue state—as it is about Syria. America doesn’t generally intervene militarily anymore to topple dictators, or even to stop humanitarian disasters. But it will uphold certain “norms” that keep the international system from falling into its natural and historical state—anarchy—once again. “A failure to stand against the use of chemical weapons would weaken prohibitions against other weapons of mass destruction, and embolden Assad’s ally, Iran, which must decide whether to ignore international law by building a nuclear weapon or to take a more peaceful path,” Obama said. “This is not a world we should accept. This is what’s at stake.”