(AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Barack Obama was absolutely right to announce, in his September 10 address to the nation, that he had asked Congress to postpone a vote to authorize the use of force against Syria. In seizing the diplomatic path out of the crisis offered by Russia, Obama was accepting the fact that Moscow had achieved an important breakthrough. Russia’s proposal, and Syria’s positive response, have already accomplished more than even the most optimistic predictions regarding the outcome of a US military strike: not only has Syria acknowledged, for the first time, that it possesses chemical weapons; it has offered to give them up entirely and to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention as well.
Of course the Assad regime could renege or stall on this offer, and the difficulties of impounding such weapons during a civil war are undeniable. And agreement on a UN Security Council resolution to carry out the plan could be rocky; as we go to press, Russia has said it will reject language that threatens force against Syria or poses an ultimatum. But there’s no question that a plan, brokered and carried out with UN oversight, to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons is vastly better than a unilateral US attack to “deter and degrade” Syria’s ability to use them.
That’s not the only breakthrough the Syrian crisis has generated. Overwhelming public resistance to a wider war has renewed the democratic spirit. In Britain, a skeptical Labour Party and Parliament forced Prime Minister David Cameron to abandon his plans for war. In America, public opposition has strengthened the checks and balances that are celebrated here but not always respected.
One of the most telling moments in Obama’s speech was when he suggested, “even though I possess the authority to order military strikes, I believed it was right, in the absence of a direct or imminent threat to our security, to take this debate to Congress. I believe our democracy is stronger when the president acts with the support of Congress. And I believe that America acts more effectively abroad when we stand together. This is especially true after a decade that put more and more war-making power in the hands of the president.”
Obama is wrong in claiming authority to order military strikes in the absence of congressional action, but he deserves credit for recognizing what has over decades become an increasingly imperial presidency. At the same time, wise members of Congress deserve credit for exploring alternatives to war.
Those members, especially Republican Scott Rigell and Democrat Barbara Lee, who penned and circulated letters calling for a congressional debate and vote, created a space not just for themselves but for the American people. The people, in turn, attended town hall meetings and contacted members with calls, e-mails and letters. Their opposition to another war—evidenced by dramatic poll numbers—slowed the process down, with activist groups proposing serious alternatives. As the Progressive Democrats of America put it, “forceful diplomacy is the alternative to force without a diplomatic solution.” Instead of simply bending to the authority of the executive branch, Congress bent to the people.
This does not mean the crisis is resolved. Diplomacy does not always prevail. The president may yet come back to Congress seeking authorization of the use of force. Indeed, he has an obligation to do so before taking any military action. But Obama could also achieve the diplomatic solution that he says is “overwhelmingly my preference” by working with the Russians and the UN to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control. And that, in turn, could lead to a revival of the Geneva peace conference and to a political settlement, which is the only means to achieve lasting resolution of the Syrian crisis.
The president was wise to note that the United States “should not be the world’s policeman.” May these words inspire a new foreign policy, one that rejects blinkered isolationism and blundering military interventionism in favor of an engaged internationalism that recognizes the power and potential of diplomacy.
Stephen F. Cohen and Katrina vanden Heuvel outline a plan  for a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Syria.