President Obama’s Full Speech to the Nation on Syria

.photo.right{display:none;} The president spoke from the East Room on Tuesday night about the use of chemical weapons and how the U.S. would respond.

President Obama addresses the nation in a live televised speech from the East Room of the White House on Tuesday.
National Journal
Matt Vasilogambros
Sept. 10, 2013, 5:30 p.m.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4434) }}

My fel­low Amer­ic­ans, to­night I want to talk to you about Syr­ia, why it mat­ters and where we go from here. Over the past two years, what began as a series of peace­ful protests against the re­press­ive re­gime of Bashar al-As­sad has turned in­to a bru­tal civil war. Over a hun­dred thou­sand people have been killed. Mil­lions have fled the coun­try. In that time, Amer­ica has worked with al­lies to provide hu­man­it­ari­an sup­port, to help the mod­er­ate op­pos­i­tion and to shape a polit­ic­al set­tle­ment.

But I have res­isted calls for mil­it­ary ac­tion be­cause we can­not re­solve someone else’s civil war through force, par­tic­u­larly after a dec­ade of war in Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan.

The situ­ation pro­foundly changed, though, on Au­gust 21st, when As­sad’s gov­ern­ment gassed to death over a thou­sand people, in­clud­ing hun­dreds of chil­dren. 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.

This was not al­ways the case. In World War I, Amer­ic­an GIs were among the many thou­sands killed by deadly gas in the trenches of Europe. In World War II, the Nazis used gas to in­flict the hor­ror of the Holo­caust. Be­cause these weapons can kill on a mass scale, with no dis­tinc­tion between sol­dier and in­fant, the civ­il­ized world has spent a cen­tury work­ing to ban them. And in 1997, the United States Sen­ate over­whelm­ingly ap­proved an in­ter­na­tion­al agree­ment pro­hib­it­ing the use of chem­ic­al weapons, now joined by 189 gov­ern­ment that rep­res­ent 98 per­cent of hu­man­ity.

On Au­gust 21st, these ba­sic rules were vi­ol­ated, along with our sense of com­mon hu­man­ity.

No one dis­putes that chem­ic­al weapons were used in Syr­ia. The world saw thou­sands of videos, cell­phone pic­tures and so­cial me­dia ac­counts from the at­tack. And hu­man­it­ari­an or­gan­iz­a­tions told stor­ies of hos­pit­als packed with people who had symp­toms of pois­on gas.

Moreover, we know the As­sad re­gime was re­spons­ible. In the days lead­ing up to Au­gust 21st, we know that As­sad’s chem­ic­al weapons per­son­nel pre­pared for an at­tack near an area they where they mix sar­in gas. They dis­trib­uted gas masks to their troops. Then they fired rock­ets from a re­gime-con­trolled area in­to 11 neigh­bor­hoods that the re­gime has been try­ing to wipe clear of op­pos­i­tion forces.

Shortly after those rock­ets landed, the gas spread, and hos­pit­als filled with the dy­ing and the wounded. We know seni­or fig­ures in As­sad’s mil­it­ary ma­chine re­viewed the res­ults of the at­tack. And the re­gime in­creased their shelling of the same neigh­bor­hoods in the days that fol­lowed. We’ve also stud­ied samples of blood and hair from people at the site that tested pos­it­ive for sar­in.

When dic­tat­ors com­mit at­ro­cit­ies, they de­pend upon the world to look the oth­er day un­til those hor­ri­fy­ing pic­tures fade from memory. But these things happened. The facts can­not be denied.

The ques­tion now is what the United States of Amer­ica and the in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity is pre­pared to do about it, be­cause what happened to those people, to those chil­dren, is not only a vi­ol­a­tion of in­ter­na­tion­al law, it’s also a danger to our se­cur­ity.

Let me ex­plain why. 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.

And a fail­ure to stand against the use of chem­ic­al weapons would weak­en pro­hib­i­tions against oth­er weapons of mass de­struc­tion and em­bolden As­sad’s ally, Ir­an, which must de­cide wheth­er to ig­nore in­ter­na­tion­al law by build­ing a nuc­le­ar weapon or to take a more peace­ful path.

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. 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. That’s my judg­ment as com­mand­er in chief.

But I’m also the pres­id­ent of the world’s old­est con­sti­tu­tion­al demo­cracy. So even though I pos­sessed the au­thor­ity to or­der mil­it­ary strikes, I be­lieved it was right, in the ab­sence of a dir­ect or im­min­ent threat to our se­cur­ity, to take this de­bate to Con­gress. I be­lieve our demo­cracy is stronger when the pres­id­ent acts with the sup­port of Con­gress, and I be­lieve that Amer­ica acts more ef­fect­ively abroad when we stand to­geth­er.

This is es­pe­cially true after a dec­ade that put more and more war-mak­ing power in the hands of the pres­id­ent, and more and more bur­dens on the shoulders of our troops, while side­lin­ing the people’s rep­res­ent­at­ives from the crit­ic­al de­cisions about when we use force.

Now, I know 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. After all, I’ve spent four and a half years work­ing to end wars, not to start them. Our troops are out of Ir­aq, our troops are com­ing home from Afgh­anistan, and I know Amer­ic­ans want all of us in Wash­ing­ton, es­pe­cially me, to con­cen­trate on the task of build­ing our na­tion here at home, put­ting people back to work, edu­cat­ing our kids, grow­ing our middle class. It’s no won­der, then, that you’re ask­ing hard ques­tions. So let me an­swer some of the most im­port­ant ques­tions that I’ve heard from mem­bers of Con­gress and that I’ve read in let­ters that you’ve sent to me.

First, many of you have asked: Won’t this put us on a slip­pery slope to an­oth­er war? One man wrote to me that we are still re­cov­er­ing from our in­volve­ment in Ir­aq. A vet­er­an put it more bluntly: This na­tion is sick and tired of war.

My an­swer is simple. I will not put Amer­ic­an boots on the ground in Syr­ia. I will not pur­sue an open-ended ac­tion like Ir­aq or Afgh­anistan. I will not pur­sue a pro­longed air cam­paign like Libya or Kosovo. This would be a tar­geted strike to achieve a clear ob­ject­ive: de­ter­ring the use of chem­ic­al weapons and de­grad­ing As­sad’s cap­ab­il­it­ies.

Oth­ers have asked wheth­er it’s worth act­ing if we don’t take out As­sad. As some mem­bers of Con­gress have said, there’s no point in simply do­ing a pin­prick strike in Syr­ia.

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 make As­sad or any oth­er dic­tat­or think twice be­fore us­ing chem­ic­al weapons.

Oth­er ques­tions in­volve the dangers of re­tali­ation. We don’t dis­miss any threats, but the As­sad re­gime does not have the abil­ity to ser­i­ously threaten our mil­it­ary. Any oth­er — any oth­er re­tali­ation they might seek is in line with threats that we face every day. 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? It’s true that some of As­sad’s op­pon­ents are ex­trem­ists. But al-Qaida 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.

Fi­nally, many of you have asked, why not leave this to oth­er coun­tries or seek solu­tions short of force?

And sev­er­al people wrote to me, we should not be the world’s po­lice­man. 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.

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. The Rus­si­an gov­ern­ment has in­dic­ated a will­ing­ness to join with the in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity in push­ing As­sad to give up his chem­ic­al weapons. The As­sad re­gime has now ad­mit­ted that it has these weapons and even said they’d join the chem­ic­al weapons con­ven­tion, which pro­hib­its their use.

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.

I have there­fore asked the lead­ers of Con­gress to post­pone a vote to au­thor­ize the use of force while we pur­sue this dip­lo­mat­ic path. I’m send­ing Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry to met his Rus­si­an coun­ter­part on Thursday, and I will con­tin­ue my own dis­cus­sions with Pres­id­ent Putin. I’ve spoken to the lead­ers of two of our closet al­lies, France and the United King­dom. And we will work to­geth­er in con­sulta­tion with Rus­sia and China to put for­ward a res­ol­u­tion at the U.N. Se­cur­ity Coun­cil re­quir­ing As­sad to give up his chem­ic­al weapons and to ul­ti­mately des­troy them un­der in­ter­na­tion­al con­trol.

We’ll also give U.N. in­spect­ors the op­por­tun­ity to re­port their find­ings about what happened on Au­gust 21st. And we will con­tin­ue to rally sup­port from al­lies, from Europe to the Amer­icas, from Asia to the Middle East who agree on the need for ac­tion.

Mean­while, I’ve ordered our mil­it­ary to main­tain their cur­rent pos­ture, to keep the pres­sure on As­sad and to be in a po­s­i­tion to re­spond if dip­lomacy fails. And to­night I give thanks again to our mil­it­ary and their fam­il­ies for their in­cred­ible strength and sac­ri­fices.

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.

And so to my friends on the right, I ask you to re­con­cile your com­mit­ment to Amer­ica’s mil­it­ary might with a fail­ure to act when a cause is so plainly just.

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.

In­deed, I’d ask every mem­ber of Con­gress, and those of you watch­ing at home to­night, to view those videos of the at­tack, and then ask: What kind of world will we live in if the United States of Amer­ica sees a dic­tat­or brazenly vi­ol­ate in­ter­na­tion­al law with pois­on gas and we choose to look the oth­er way? Frank­lin Roosevelt once said our na­tion­al de­term­in­a­tion to keep free of for­eign wars and for­eign en­tan­gle­ments can­not pre­vent us from feel­ing deep con­cern when ideals and prin­ciples that we have cher­ished are chal­lenged.

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.

With hu­mil­ity, but with re­solve, let us nev­er lose sight of that es­sen­tial truth.

Thank you. God bless you, and God bless the United States of Amer­ica.

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