"Tonight I want to talk to you about Syria, why it matters, and where do we go from here," President Obama told the nation in a prime time speech on Tuesday night, where he announced that the U.S. will continue to pursue congressional authorization for a military strike while, at the same time, pursuing a new diplomatic path opened up on Monday by Russia. On Tuesday, that plan became slightly more complicated to implement as the details emerged on what the Russians would, and wouldn't support in order to avoid a strike on the country. One agreed upon detail: Syria giving up its chemical weapons to international control. But Russia and Syria would also like the U.S. to take the option of a strike off the table entirely.
Nevertheless, that option has changed the narrative of what seemed like an inevitable military strike on Syria, at least for now. "Over the last few days we've seen some encouraging signs, in part because of the" threat of military strikes," Obama said. "The Assad regime has now admitted that they had these chemical weapons," he said, adding that any agreement between Syria and the world to stop a military strike would involve verifying Assad's commitment to hand over his weapons.
"We'll also give U.N. inspectors an opportunity" to report their findings on their chemical weapons inspection in Syria, Obama said, adding, "I've ordered our military to maintain our current posture," in case the diplomatic path doesn't work out. He reiterated his commitment to a military strike, should a diplomatic solution fail: "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...That's my judgment as commander in chief."
With that in mind, the president attempted to convince the public of the national security threat faced by the country should the U.S. not retaliate:
If we fail to act, the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons.
As the ban against these weapons erodes, other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas and using them. Over time our troops would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield, and it could be easier for terrorist organizations to obtain these weapons and to use them to attack civilians.
If fighting spills beyond Syria’s borders, these weapons could threaten allies like Turkey, Jordan and Israel.
Obama also sought to answer a series of questions posed by the American public about possible military action, which again, was very much not off the table in Obama's speech. "After the terrible toll of Iraq and Afghanistan," Obama said he knew new military action would be unpopular. "It's no wonder, then, that you're asking hard questions."
"First, many of you have asked, won't this put you on a slippery slope towards more war," Obama said. His answer? "I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria. ... I will not pursue a prolonged air campaign like Libya or Kosovo."
Second, Obama asked, is it worth acting if we don't "take out Assad?" His answer: "Let me make something clear. The United States military doesn't do pinpricks," arguing that any strike would send a message, even if it's the limited action proposed by his administration.
Third, he asked, can the attacks lead to a retaliation? His answer: "The Assad regime does not have the ability to seriously threaten our military," Obama said.
Fourth, the president asked, why should the U.S. get involved in an already chaotic situation? His answer, essentially, was that not getting involved certainly wouldn't help, either. He said, "Al-Qaida will only draw strength in a more chaotic Syria" if emboldened by Assad's ability to continue to use chemical weapons.
Obama referred again to the images of the Aug. 21 chemical attack, adding that the attack "profoundly changed" his previous "resistance" to military action against Syria. Speaking of the "sickening" images of children, men, women dead from the gas. Obama added that "on that terrible night" we saw "the terrible nature of chemical weapons."
The images from this massacre are sickening, men, women, children lying in rows, killed by poison gas, others foaming at the mouth, gasping for breath, a father clutching his dead children, imploring them to get up and walk. 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.
In that light, the president touched on the idea of American Exceptionalism is his pitch to the U.S. on the country's role in the Syrian conflict:
My fellow Americans, for nearly seven decades the United States has been the anchor of global security. This has meant doing more than forging international agreements. It has meant enforcing them. The burdens of leadership are often heavy, but the world’s a better place because we have borne them... ...Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria, along with our leadership of a world where we seek to ensure that the worst weapons will never be used. 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.
Here's the full transcript, via the Washington Post.
Reprinted with permission from the Atlantic Wire. The original story can be found here.
This article was published in Global Security Newswire, which is produced independently by National Journal Group under contract with the Nuclear Threat Initiative. NTI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group working to reduce global threats from nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.