WASHINGTON — President Obama’s Syria speech to the nation on Tuesday addressed some of his critics’ arguments — and took direct aim at his naysayers on the left and right — but revealed little new about the administration’s case as the intention still appears to be gaining public support for just-in-case strike authorization.
Statements from Democrats after the address hinted at how the Capitol Hill part of the Syria endgame is shaping up: a revised resolution authorizing force if Bashar al-Assad fails to follow through on any vows made in a Russian deal, the initial details of which range from becoming a signatory to the chemical weapons convention to having his massive stockpiles monitored or destroyed.
“On that terrible night, the world saw in gruesome detail the terrible nature of chemical weapons and why the overwhelming majority of humanity has declared them off-limits, a crime against humanity and a violation of the laws of war,” Obama said of the Aug. 21 attack in a primetime speech from the East Room.
“When dictators commit atrocities, they depend upon the world to look the other way until those horrifying pictures fade from memory, but these things happened. The facts cannot be denied.”
Obama reiterated points he’s made in recent days about the violations of international law and threats posed to U.S. allies in the region.
“This is not a world we should accept. This is what’s at stake. And that is why, after careful deliberation, I determined that it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike,” he said. “The purpose of this strike would be to deter Assad from using chemical weapons, to degrade his regime’s ability to use them, and to make clear to the world that we will not tolerate their use.”
He added that he realizes “that after the terrible toll of Iraq and Afghanistan, the idea of any military action — no matter how limited — is not going to be popular.”
“Others have asked whether it’s worth acting if we don’t take out Assad. Now, some members of Congress have said there’s no point in simply doing a pinprick strike in Syria,” Obama continued. “Let me make something clear: The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks. Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver.”
“I don’t think we should remove another dictator with force. We learned from Iraq that doing so makes us responsible for all that comes next. But a targeted strike can makes Assad — or any other dictator — think twice before using chemical weapons.”
The president then addressed questions about the danger of retaliation, saying “neither Assad nor his allies have any interest in escalation that would lead to his demise, and our ally, Israel, can defend itself with overwhelming force, as well as the unshakable support of the United States of America.”
“Many of you have asked a broader question: Why should we get involved at all in a place that’s so complicated and where, as one person wrote to me, those who come after Assad may be enemies of human rights?” Obama said. “It’s true that some of Assad’s opponents are extremists. But al-Qaeda will only draw strength in a more chaotic Syria if people there see the world doing nothing to prevent innocent civilians from being gassed to death.”
“The majority of the Syrian people, and the Syrian opposition we work with, just want to live in peace, with dignity and freedom. And the day after any military action, we would redouble our efforts to achieve a political solution that strengthens those who reject the forces of tyranny and extremism.”
He then said he agreed with people who say the U.S. shouldn’t be the world’s policemen.
“I agree. And I have a deeply held preference for peaceful solutions. Over the last two years, my administration has tried diplomacy and sanctions, warnings and negotiations, but chemical weapons were still used by the Assad regime,” said the president.
“However, over the last few days, we’ve seen some encouraging signs, in part because of the credible threat of U.S. military action, as well as constructive talks that I had with President Putin,” Obama continued. “…It’s too early to tell whether this offer will succeed, and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments, but 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.”
Obama said he asked Congress to postpone its vote as he keeps chatting with Vladimir Putin and Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Thursday. France and Britain have been asked to try to browbeat China and Russia at the UN to come up with a resolution palatable to the Assad alliance.
“To my friends on the right, I ask you to reconcile your commitment to America’s military might with the failure to act when a cause is so plainly just,” he said. “To my friends on the left, I ask you to reconcile your belief in freedom and dignity for all people with those images of children writhing in pain and going still on a cold hospital floor, for sometimes resolutions and statements of condemnation are simply not enough.”
“…America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong, but when with modest effort and risk we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth.”
Many wondered where Obama was going to go with this speech as the White House seemed eager to try to make the Russia deal work — even as early signs at the UN Security Council weren’t good, with Russia rejecting off the bat a French plan that would allow Assad to be punished with force if he failed to comply.
After a lunch with Obama and the rest of his caucus today, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said “if we’re going to have any success diplomatically in the future on this issue, we have to make sure that the credible threat of military action remains.”