Obama Pledges to Consider Syria Plan, While Keeping Threat of a Strike

Abby Ohlheiser, Atlantic Wire
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Abby Ohlheiser, Atlantic Wire
Sept. 10, 2013, 7:02 p.m.

“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.

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