Disparate, simultaneous crises around the world have put the Obama Administration’s foreign policy on trial in recent weeks. The forward march of Islamic State insurgents in Iraq has led to renewed military action in the country the President so vehemently sought to leave when he took office.
In Israel and Gaza, the limitations of American power have been on full display, as Secretary of State John Kerry returned from peace talks empty-handed and Israel began a bloody offensive against Hamas militants. In Ukraine, the United States has failed to prevent Russian President Vladimir Putin from trying to destabilize the country.
So it was a rare bit of good news from the administration this week that the United States had “finished neutralizing” hundreds of tons of the deadliest chemical weapons belonging to the regime of President Bashar Assad of Syria. This was a milestone in the diplomatic process that began a year ago this week, when the Assad government was accused of using sarin gas to kill more than 1,000 people in a rebel-held suburb near Damascus.
Mr. Obama had previously promised that the use of chemical weapons in the country’s civil war would constitute a “red line” for the United States, and would change his “calculus.” So when the accusations were leveled — and confirmed — the President was under enormous pressure to punish Syria militarily.
But rather than launch air strikes, as he had prepared to do, Mr. Obama agreed at the last minute to a Russian proposal under which Syria would voluntarily surrender its chemical weapons for destruction. Conservatives assailed the plan as naive and feckless — a projection of American weakness.
The President’s supporters called it a fulfillment of his campaign promise to negotiate with those who were willing to talk in good faith. We said at the time that it would not be easy and would require strict verification, but that “an agreement that would truly put Syria’s chemical weapons ‘beyond use’ would be a preferable alternative to military action.”
This week, Mr. Obama said the destruction of the weapons — including 600 tons of sarin and mustard agents eliminated aboard the Cape Ray, an American military cargo ship in the Mediterranean Sea — “sends a clear message that the use of these abhorrent weapons has consequences.”
It would be foolish to declare the mission accomplished. As Secretary Kerry pointed out, there are still “discrepancies and omissions” to be addressed in the information Syria has provided about its weapons arsenal. Syria still has “production facilities” that must be destroyed. And concern remains about the use of chlorine gas in opposition-held areas.
But this week’s announcement was promising. Negotiation and diplomacy offer a better alternative to what would otherwise have been air strikes, followed by likely civilian deaths and a worrisome creep toward war.