• With: Dan Henninger, Bret Stephens, Kim Strassel, James Freeman, Joe Rago

    This is a rush transcript from "Journal Editorial Report," September 14, 2013. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

    PAUL GIGOT, HOST: This week on the "Journal Editorial Report," President Obama stands down. A look at what his Syria retreat means for his standing in the world and America's.

    Plus, five years after the financial crisis, what lessons have we learned and is our banking system any safer?

    And fracking and the poor. Why our natural-gas boom may be America's best anti-poverty program.


    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force, particularly because Russia is one of Assad's strongest allies. I have, therefore, asked the leaders of Congress to postpone vote to authorize the use of force while we pursue this diplomatic path.


    GIGOT: Welcome to the "Journal Editorial Report." I'm Paul Gigot.

    That was President Obama Tuesday announcing that he would explore a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Syria, mediated by the Russians before moving ahead on a congressional vote on the use of force. But after weeks of his administration urging military action against the government of Bashar al-Assad, what does this retreat mean for the president's standing in the world and America's standing?

    Let's ask Wall Street Journal columnist and deputy, Dan Henninger; Washington columnist, Kim Strassel; and foreign affairs columnist, Bret Stephens.

    Dan, you described this this week as the Laurel-and-Hardy presidency - -


    Not kind words. How would you sum up this week?

    DAN HENNINGER, COLUMNIST & DEPUTY EDITOR: The Laurel-and-Hardy presidency. Beyond that, I would say it's been really a presidency bouncing off the walls. Barack Obama, we just heard him say has now proposed if they dispose of Assad's chemical weapons, then we will have that problem behind us. One has to wonder who exactly he consulted on this subject. Chemical weapons are one of the most -- acting as though these are boxes of books in Assad's library.


    In fact, it's one of the most complicated substances in defense policy. We read the Wall Street Journal. It's had a wonderful front- page story about something called Unit 450 in Syria, a very highly sophisticated group in the Syrian army, which is dispersing the chemical weapons to 50 different sites. The idea that we're going to somehow find them and dispose of them is really, as we say, feckless. So one wonders whether the president is simply acting on ideas as they enter his mind.

    GIGOT: But the argument from the White House is that this was actually brilliant diplomacy. I'm not making this up. That's what they are saying. Because they're saying that now he can get rid of the chemical weapons without having to go to war, for example, and solve the problem.

    BRET STEPHENS, FOREIGN AFFAIRS COLUMNIST: Yeah, well, that's what the White House would like to think. And its handmaids in the media are certainly pushing that line. In that reality -- you remember how Tony Blair used to be described as Bush's poodle? Well, now, the president of the United States is Vladimir Putin's poodle. He might even be Assad's poodle because this is going -- whatever resolution there is will have to be negotiated. And the Russians and Assad will be making demands. We've been seeing Assad saying, my demand is that there be no arming of the Syrian rebels and no intervention. So we're going to get into this bizarre, sort of Middle Eastern bizarre --

    GIGOT: B-A-Z-A-A-R.



    STEPHENS: This bizarre bazaar, if you will, in which the United States will be held hostage to the whims of a tyrant who is gassing his own people and his patron in Moscow who now presumes to write op-eds in "The New York Times" dictating to the American president what he may or may not say in speeches.

    GIGOT: That's, Kim, what is so striking. The day after all of this went down, the president went on national TV to say, Vladimir Putin's good offices have now been opened to the United States. Putin runs this op-ed in the United States essentially beating up Obama. I don't think there is any other way to describe it. Essentially, humiliating an American president, taking him to task for saying that he used the phrase "American exceptionalism." America is not exceptional any more than anybody else. And saying -- essentially, humiliating him. What do you make of the reaction to all of this in Washington?

    KIM STRASSEL, WASHINGTON COLUMNIST: Well, here's the problem. We've talked about how Obama was doing all this because he was in a box. He put himself in a bigger box. Despite his speech, he went on national television and made the case for why we might need to still use force against Syria. He has given Congress an exit here. And there is very little chance, if this does not work out with Russia, that Congress will take back up a vote and actually vote to -- they were opposed to doing this anyway. Now they see absolutely no reason to.

    And having talked to members of Congress, both parties see him as -- they did not view this as a diplomatic stroke of genius. This could hurt him in other regards, too.

    GIGOT: So what you are saying is you think there is little likelihood that the president will, at the end of this, go back to Congress and say, well, the negotiations failed, we need to now act against Syria.

    STRASSEL: People were already opposed to giving him that authorization. What he has now done is allowed Congress to run for the exits. What you are seeing are people talking about -- even prior to his speech, even prior to this offer from Putin, people in Congress were talking about, well, maybe what we ought to do is have a vote on legislation, for instance, that requires Assad to surrender his chemical weapons in 45 days. Everyone in Congress is now themselves looking at the diplomatic options.

    GIGOT: On this point that you mentioned, Bret, about the bizarre being opened, we have already seen Assad saying, look, I'm not going to agree to give up my chemical weapons unless you stop arming the Syrian rebels and essentially repudiate any future possibility of the use of force. So these negotiations could go on a very long time.

    STEPHENS: And people are taking notice all over the world. I think there is a palpable sensation if Europe, in Asia, and particularly in the Middle East, that this administration is weak, this administration can be had and this administration is addicted to its own conceits. You remember the Carter administration response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, send F-15s to Saudi Arabia, but didn't arm them, that kind of weak signal that deeply troubled our allies in the region.

    GIGOT: Right.

    STEPHENS: And if you were sitting in Riyadh as a decision-maker or in Jerusalem as a decision-maker, you're looking at an American presidency with 40 months left to go and worrying seriously about what will happen next in the absence of any fixed American guarantee.

    GIGOT: Is there a way the American can retrieve this, Dan? I mean, do you see it? I have to say, I have been covering foreign policy and for a long type, I have never seen a fiasco like this from a U.S. president.

    HENNINGER: I agree. I think the only way that he can retrieve it is if he stops running foreign policy in his own mind and brings in some people to consult with and advise him on a larger strategy. He has to understand what a mistake this was. But this president seems incapable of --


    GIGOT: How do you retrieve it, Bret?

    STEPHENS: Well, look, one of the things he do is simply say, we will have a red line, there's a 10-day deadline and these are my demands, and if they're not met, I will act against Syria, whether Congress likes it, whether Putin likes it and whether Assad likes it.


    GIGOT: What do you think the chances are that --