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.
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.
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.
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