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.”
“It’s important to understand that the only reason Russia is seeking an alternative to military action is that the president of the United States has made it very clear that we will act if we must. And that’s a message he gave us,” said Reid. “What we have going on now with the international community is a positive development. But it’s only just that. It’s a development. It’s really important to remember that Syria has an extremely, extremely low level of credibility. He has denied even having these poisonous gases, these chemical weapons. So for such a diplomatic solution to be possible, the Assad regime must act and act quickly to prove their offer is real and not merely a ploy to delay military action or the action of the Senate.”
The Democratic leader then added: “As Reagan said, trust, but verify.”
Any tweaking of the use of force resolution, Reid said, would start at Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Ranking Member Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), both supporters of the president’s original strike plan who honed the measure to what is now in Reid’s hands.
“Our schedule’s being driven by developments that are taking place not by some artificial timeline that we have here, and that’s why I took this offer the calendar last night to move — to have a vote tomorrow morning. As I said last night, I will tell everybody again, it’s important we do this well, not quickly,” Reid said. “…If something can be done diplomatically, I’m totally satisfied with that. I’m not a blood-and-thunder guy. I’m not for shock-and-awe.”
Menendez noted after Obama’s speech that “the diplomatic door has opened ever so slightly and while I have doubts about this 11th hour offer, it would be wrong to slam the door shut without due consideration.”
“I am now working with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to consider this diplomatic initiative within the context of the committee’s resolution,” he said. “Should diplomacy fail, an authorization of force will send an unequivocal message to the Assad regime and other international actors that the use of chemical weapons will be met with a military response to prevent their use and proliferation.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) also focused on the goal of an amended authorization. “I believe Congress can best support the goal of a diplomatic solution by approving a resolution that authorizes the use of force if Syria refuses to give up its chemical weapons,” he said.
But Obama didn’t universally win Democratic support with his address.
“I am hopeful that a verifiable, enforceable and timely diplomatic solution will be the American and world response to Syria’s deplorable actions,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “I remain concerned about the resolution now before the Senate authorizing the use of military force. It is too broadly written, lacks international support, and risks entangling us in Syria’s protracted civil war.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said she was glad Obama directly spoke to the American people, but she needs to see how negotiations at the UN play and keep reviewing intelligence.
“A credible diplomatic solution at the United Nations is the best possible outcome for the United States and the world community. We must fully exhaust this developing opportunity before determining whether to authorize U.S. military action,” she said.
On the other side of the aisle, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee, scoffed at the Russia proposal’s chance of success.
“Russia, together with China, has protected the Assad regime and stymied repeated attempts by the U.S. and other responsible nations at the UN Security Council to hold it accountable. How can we trust the Russians to convince Assad to willingly hand over his chemical weapons?” Ros-Lehtinen said. “The use of chemical weapons merits a strong U.S. military response that will act as a deterrent for other rogue regimes such as Iran and North Korea. It is in the U.S. national security interest to keep the use of poison gas from becoming normalized and accepted in clear violation of the Geneva Convention and international norms. The Geneva Convention should not be interpreted as allowing a ‘free first use of gas.’”
Questions about the Russia proposal, she added, include: Will the Assad regime grant access to all of its facilities and stockpiles, or just a select few? Who will monitor and be in possession of the chemical weapons and any other WMDs in Syria? Will the United States be part of the inspection team? How will the weapons be secured while Syria’s conflict continues and with no end in sight? Will there be a UN Security Council resolution? Will it compel Assad to comply and will there be consequences should there be any violations of the resolution? What concessions will the U.S. be making to Russia to secure this plan?
“I have repeatedly called for the Assad regime to grant UN inspectors immediate access to all of its WMD facilities and stockpiles so that they can be protected, sealed and dismantled,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “If the UN is to gain access to Assad’s materials and weapons now, it must not be limited to just chemical weapons, it must be for all WMDs, and it must be given unfettered access with verifiable assurances that nothing has been hidden, moved or transferred.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) delivered a response to Obama’s speech, arguing that “America’s credibility does not reside in one man.”
“Just about any bad outcome you can imagine is made more likely by U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war,” the senator said. “In the past 24 hours, Russia has offered to broker a deal with Syria to have their chemical weapons put under international control. Diplomacy, if sincere, would be a welcome resolution. The Syrian foreign minister has indicated an interest in the proposal. Can we trust the participants in this plan?”
“Diplomacy is always a mixture of trust, distrust, and watchfulness. We should not be naïve, and we should have a solid plan and safeguards in place as part of any solution,” Paul continued. “But one thing is for certain, the chance for diplomacy would not have occurred without strong voices against an immediate bombing campaign.”