Admitting Mistakes, Making the Case, and the Speech Obama Should Give

The president should start tonight by saying, ‘I screwed up.’

President Barack Obama walks along the West Wing Colonnade toward the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013, ahead of his daily briefing. Obama will deliver a speech on Syria from the East Room in an address to the national this evening.
National Journal
Matthew Cooper
Sept. 10, 2013, 10:12 a.m.

Could the Syr­ia mess get any messi­er? On Monday morn­ing it seemed Con­gress was head­ing for a vote on a res­ol­u­tion to au­thor­ize the use of force in Syr­ia. But as Pres­id­ent Obama’s already thin sup­port con­tin­ued to evap­or­ate, the Rus­si­ans, of all people, came to his res­cue.

Mo­scow picked up on John Kerry say­ing he’d be open to a plan for Syr­ia to hand over its chem­ic­al weapons as a way of end­ing the crisis. And by Tues­day morn­ing, as Obama pre­pared to ad­dress the na­tion in an even­ing speech, the French presen­ted the turn-over-the-weapons idea as a U.N. res­ol­u­tion while a bi­par­tis­an group of eight sen­at­ors draf­ted its own ver­sion.

So with all of this go­ing on what should the pres­id­ent say to­night, as­sum­ing he doesn’t want to go back to Martha’s Vine­yard and for­get this ever happened? Here­with, a speech the pres­id­ent could give but prob­ably won’t.

My fel­low Amer­ic­ans.

I want to talk to you to­night about the situ­ation in Syr­ia—why its dic­tat­or­ship’s use of chem­ic­al weapons mat­ters to us and what I plan to do about it. I also owe you an apo­logy for why my ad­min­is­tra­tion has presen­ted its case so poorly. The short an­swer, as I’ll ex­plain in a mo­ment, is that I screwed up.

But, first, Syr­ia.

For the past two years, Syr­ia has been en­gaged in a civil war that has cost 100,000 lives as the coun­try rises up against its bru­tal ruler, Bashar al-As­sad. The war has been bloody and the flow of refugees ““ some two mil­lion try­ing to es­cape the carnage ““ threatens Syr­ia’s neigh­bors, Jordan and Tur­key, who are our al­lies. It’s on the bor­der of Is­rael. It’s on the Medi­ter­ranean. The in­stabil­ity in Syr­ia threatens the en­tire re­gion.

But the United States has de­clined to join the fight. We’ve offered dip­lo­mat­ic help to stem the fight­ing and hu­man­it­ari­an aid, but for the most part we’ve left Syr­ia to work out its own tragedy. After all, for more than 10 years our troops fought a bru­tal war in Ir­aq and we’re fi­nally draw­ing down our forces in Afgh­anistan 12 years after the 9/11 at­tacks forced us to find Osama bin Laden and end his ca­pa­city for glob­al ter­ror­ism.

So why care about Syr­ia now? Earli­er this sum­mer, As­sad, the coun­try’s dic­tat­or, un­leashed a chem­ic­al at­tack on his own cit­izens. Un­like Ir­aq, where we were com­pletely wrong about its ef­forts to ac­quire weapons of mass de­struc­tion, this time there’s no dis­pute. Tis­sue and hair samples from the dead, in­clud­ing 400 chil­dren, are con­clus­ive. And so is our firm con­vic­tion that no one else could have used these weapons. The Syr­i­ans deny they’re be­hind this mon­strous at­tack. They’re ly­ing.

I know most of you think that we shouldn’t get in­volved. As bad as things are in Syr­ia, either we can’t af­ford to fix things there in terms of blood and treas­ure. And you prob­ably doubt that we could do any good if we try. Be­sides, some say, no Amer­ic­an lives have been lost here.

Those are all good points. And as someone who ran for pres­id­ent, prom­ising to get us out of Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan, I’m very sym­path­et­ic to an ar­gu­ment that says stay out.

But here’s the thing. We can’t ig­nore when someone uses chem­ic­al weapons. These weapons have been il­leg­al un­der in­ter­na­tion­al law for dec­ades. Few have used them. Sad­dam Hus­sein but not North Korea or al Qaeda. Us­ing these for­bid­den weapons crosses a red line.

Now this is the part about me screw­ing up. I haven’t handled this as well as I should.

A year ago I used that phrase, “a red line,” about Syr­ia and chem­ic­al weapons and that seemed to com­mit us to ac­tion. But it was vague when pres­id­ents should be clear. It con­fused our al­lies and it cer­tainly didn’t de­ter As­sad from cross­ing the line.

When we con­cluded that Syr­ia had used the weapons and crossed that line we sought al­lies to go along with us for some kind of joint mil­it­ary ac­tion.

That didn’t go so well. Even Great Bri­tain wouldn’t go along. A few coun­tries like France and Saudi Ar­a­bia are with us but most aren’t. We didn’t have NATO and we didn’t have the UN.

At that point, I said I’d go to Con­gress for its sup­port. It was a sur­prise move that threw every­one in Wash­ing­ton in­to a state of con­fu­sion. But it was the right one be­cause I need Con­gress and the people with me. But Con­gress isn’t and you aren’t.

I should have said early on I’d go to Con­gress for ap­prov­al. Do­ing so at the last minute was bet­ter than not go­ing at all but the delay didn’t help any­one, least of all me.

Now, to make things more com­plic­ated I’ve hin­ted I might go ahead any­way with a strike even if Con­gress dis­ap­proves. That’s sown more con­fu­sion.

But the reas­on I keep stick­ing with this idea of mil­it­ary ac­tion is be­cause I be­lieve so strongly that once the genie is out of the bottle for these kinds of weapons, they’ll be­come com­mon­place, hurt­ling us to­ward a bru­tal new world. Oth­er dic­tat­ors will think, “Hey, I want to get some gas too and what’s the cost of us­ing it?”

Now in re­cent days we’ve been talk­ing to the Rus­si­ans and oth­ers about a way for Syr­ia to turn over its chem­ic­al weapons to an in­ter­na­tion­al au­thor­ity. That’s a good idea that would spare us tak­ing mil­it­ary ac­tion.

I have to ad­mit, that wasn’t our idea. A re­port­er asked Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry about such a no­tion and he ex­pressed some open­ness to it. Then the Rus­si­ans, who are long­time pals with Syr­ia and who have been fight­ing with us on Syr­ia, em­braced it.

If it works it’s an el­eg­ant way of find­ing a route out of the mess even if it’s one we stumbled in­to. It would be a little like John Kennedy solv­ing the Cuban Mis­sile Crisis with a block­ade of So­viet ships rather than call­ing in an air­strike on Cuba.

It’s a little like Harry Tru­man lead­ing the Ber­lin Air­lift in the 1940s rather than go­ing to war with the So­vi­ets who had cut off the Ger­man city.

I wish I could say it was my idea but it seems like one worth try­ing even if it’s one that Vladi­mir Putin is driv­ing it. At this point I’ll take a good idea wherever it comes from.

I know this isn’t a rous­ing call to war.

My job would be easi­er if we were aven­ging Amer­ic­an deaths or help­ing a close ally like Is­rael. No one wants to get in the middle of a bloody civil war.

But I be­lieve we need to keep a mil­it­ary op­tion as we talk to the Rus­si­ans and the Syr­i­ans and oth­ers about Syr­ia turn­ing over their weapons.

Why? To keep the pres­sure on As­sad and to pun­ish him if he doesn’t com­ply.

A lot of people ask me if a strike can ever be sur­gic­al and wouldn’t it mean an­oth­er war. I can only say this. I’m de­term­ined to keep any ac­tion lim­ited ““ mis­siles and air­strike, not boots on the ground.

In re­cent days my team and I have been too glib about this, mak­ing it sound like it’s minor sur­gery. That’s my fault. It’s messi­er than that. We could lose a pi­lot. Syr­ia could launch ter­ror­ist at­tacks in the re­gion through their al­lies, Hezbol­lah. We might strengthen the hand of some of the rad­ic­al Is­lam­ist in­sur­gents. Syr­ia could keep us­ing chem­ic­al weapons, leav­ing the ques­tion of what we do then.

In oth­er words, there are risks even to what we think of as pre­ci­sion strikes. I’ll try to keep them to a min­im­um but I’d be ly­ing to you if I said this was simple. 

So there you have it. For me it comes down to this. A dic­tat­or has gassed wo­men and chil­dren. He’s broke an ex­pli­cit and un­spoken law that we must nev­er use these weapons. If we do noth­ing, it sends a ter­rible sig­nal.

If we can get him to hand over the weapons, that’s the best out­come.

If we can’t, I think it’s worth the risk of mil­it­ary force.

I re­spect those who don’t agree with me. And I don’t think I’ve made my case well be­fore to­night.

This is not an easy call but it is the right one. A great power doesn’t al­ways have the choice to ig­nore its ob­lig­a­tions. We shouldn’t be the world’s po­lice­man. But some­times we can’t look the oth­er way, either.

Thank you.

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