Our view: Syria: US loses the initiative but gains time

September 14, 2013 

For any American citizen reading and listening to our debate over Syria and chemical weapons, there has been little to cheer and a lot of confusion.

Negotiations may bring about the end of chemical weapons in Syria. But the United States in general and President Obama in particular lost the initiative on the issue to Russia, which seems to be a lot more clear and calculating about its purpose in the Middle East.

There's more than one reason for this. Poor statecraft, a poor job of explaining to the American people, a menu of mostly bad choices and a deep reluctance on the part of Americans for any more military action in the Middle East all contribute, as does the lack of an overall strategy and objective.

How to go forward? Above all, be clear. The Middle East is confusing enough without any cloudiness in U.S. policy.

In negotiations over Syria's chemical weapons, go beyond Ronald Reagan's rule of "trust but verify." Deal with Syria and Russia by the rule of "Verify, and trust only what you can verify."

Drop the talk over "red lines," "shots across the bow" and "unbelievably small" strikes. At this point, if we decide to shoot, we need to hit something. Communicate clearly but don't talk too much, especially if you're not sure Congress and the nation have your back. Don't rattle the saber. Just keep it sharp.

It hasn't been a banner week for the United States. But let's take heart in this -- while Obama had to retreat, it was the still United States leading the way against Syria's use of chemical weapons. That's an act of decency and leadership; now we need to make it effective.

Putin had his little coup and Obama took the cover. But now we have some time, and the story isn't over yet.

BOTTOM LINE: U.S. needs to be clear about any role in Syria -- diplomatic or military.

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