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Friedman: Threaten to threaten

  • (SCOTT STANTIS / Chicago Tribune)

If you're an average American and are confused and worried about our getting embroiled in a no-win Syrian civil war, you're right to be concerned. It means you're paying attention. But if you're a member of Congress who's still wondering whether to grant President Barack Obama the authority to use force to deter Syrian President Bashar Assad from again murdering hundreds of his people with poison gas, it now makes sense to take a timeout. That also means you're paying attention.

A new situation has been created by the Russian offer — embraced by Obama, all of our major allies and China, but still only vaguely accepted by Syria — for Syria to turn over its stockpiles of poison gas to international control. Let's have no illusion. There's still a real possibility that the Russians and Syrians are just stalling and will fudge in the end, and even if one or both are serious, there are formidable logistical and political obstacles to securing Syria's chemical weapons swiftly and completely. Part of me wonders: Has anybody thought this through?

But all of me wants to acknowledge that if a Syrian surrender of poison gas were implemented — still a big if — it would be a good end to this near-term crisis. The global taboo on poison gas would be upheld, and America would not have to get embroiled in a shooting war in Syria.

In that context, I think it is worth Obama and Congress threatening to schedule a vote to endorse Obama's threat of force — if the Syrians and Russians don't act in good faith — but not schedule a vote right now. (That was essentially the president's message in his speech Tuesday night.) By “threatening to threaten,” Obama would retain leverage to keep the Syrians and Russians focused on implementing any agreement — but without having to test Congress' real willingness to let him fulfill that threat. Because, if it failed to pass, the Russians and Syrians would have no incentive to move.

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