President Barack Obama delivered a rare televised address to the nation from the East Room of the White House about the crisis in Syria on Tuesday evening, Sept. 10, 2013 at 9 p.m. President Obama's speech made a strong case to the American public about pursuing a military response to Syria's Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack ordered by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad near the city of Damascus that left 1429 Syrian citizens, including 400 children dead, and the case for a new development proposing a diplomatic solution that would rid Syria of all chemical weapons. The President's speech was an attempt to pursue "peace through strength" leaving the threat of military action credibly on the table.
President Barack Obama's 15 minute speech had two parts. The first half was longer and seemed to be the prepared speech he was intending to give to convince Congress and the nation about the need for military action against Syria. While the second half focused on the diplomatic solution Syria's greatest ally Russia proposed the day earlier, which will require Syria to hand over all their chemical weapons for international control to the United Nations for their destruction, with the promise of no military attack against them.
The plan has been praised by many nations and the United Nations as an alternative to military force, and the President already started coordinating the plan with allies Britain and France as well as Syrian allies Russia and China. If not just a delay tactic, being employed by Russia and Syria, this could allow President Obama to abandon his uphill and unpopular battle to gain support for a military strike, and the main reason for addressing the nation Tuesday evening.
In the first half of his speech, Obama reiterated many of the points he has made in various speeches, press conferences and interviews since he has made since he first announced on Aug. 31, 2013 that he decided to pursue military action against Syria, but only with a Congressional vote of approval. This portion laid out the President's case for a military intervention.
The President began his speech generally recounted the realities and casualties of Syria's civil war. Then Obama went right to the punch; the American public and Congress' reluctance to support a military strike in Syria, because the two prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Right now over two thirds of Americans oppose a military intervention. Obama stated; "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."
Obama then recounted the nightmare of the chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21, describing the events that happened and emphasizing the difference in the Syrian conflict now that deserves a response, saying; "The situation profoundly changed, though, on August 21st, when Assad's government gassed to death over a thousand people, including hundreds of children." The President graphically described the horrors of the day.
President Obama wanted to emphasized why there is a red line against chemical weapons telling the history of its usage from the trenches of World War I to the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention treaty the U.S. signed in 1997, barring the use of chemical weapons, and supported by all world nations except five including Syria. Obama stated Syria crossed the worldwide red line; "On August 21st, these basic rules were violated, along with our sense of common humanity."
The President then made his case to prove the attack occurred; "The world saw thousands of videos, cellphone pictures and social media accounts from the attack." Obama also gave proof the Assad regime was behind the attack and the evidence and events that back that claim. President Obama knows proof is one of the most important issues in American lack of support, because the basis of military intervention in Iraq and its weapons of mass destruction remained unfounded.
Obama emphasized the need for a strong response to Syria's violation both to prevent a recurrent usage of chemicals weapons and for American national security. Obama stressed; "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."
On the eve of the 12th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Obama invoked the war on terror, which he has downplayed for much of his Presidency until this past week. The President stated without deterrence "it could be easier for terrorist organizations to obtain these weapons and to use them to attack civilians. The President then discussed the threat to U.S. allies in the Middle East; "these weapons could threaten allies like Turkey, Jordan and Israel."
The President explained that because of "the absence of a direct or imminent threat to our security" he is seeking Congressional approval. The most difficult part of the speech for the President was convincing Americans that the proposed Syria military strike would never end up like Iraq and Afghanistan, realizing; "the idea of any military action, no matter how limited, is not going to be popular." Obama also emphatically promised; "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." President Obama was referring to air strikes authorized by former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
The second half of the speech focused on the new proposed diplomatic plan, the Syria arms proposal, which would require that Syria had over its chemical weapons arsenal to the United Nations, and the steps being taken in pursuing that option.
In introducing the new development, Obama stated; "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." After explaining the new plan, Obama explained the chances for success; "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."
The President expressing his interest in pursuing a diplomatic solution, also delineated the path and immediate steps being taken towards that goal; postponing a Congressional vote on military action, continuing conversations and meetings with Russia, preparing a U.N. Security Council proposal with Syrian allies Russia and China, and waiting for the U.N.'s inspector's report on the Syrian chemical weapons attack. The last, the President had no intention of doing before, which he had made clear during his week campaigning for a military strike.
The President concluded that he reserves the right to continue down the road to military action should the diplomatic option fall through, saying; "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." Obama wants to keep the pressure on Syria and Russia to ensure their plan is not just a rouse to put the United States off course and distract them away from continuing towards a military response.
President Obama's concluding remarks was another plea to members of Congress appealing that the core principals of the right and left would support the military intervention. Obama pleaded for Congress' support saying; "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."
Pursuing the diplomatic option buys the President time to get support he does not have from Congress, if a vote would have be held this week it would have been a certain defeat, with catastrophic results for American world standing, similar to Great Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron's defeat with the British House of Commons vote nearly two weeks earlier. If Obama fails to garner a vote authorizing a military intervention, Obama's leadership is in peril; he will be labeled irrelevant, a lame duck with over three years left in his term. While America's reputation as a world leader will be dashed and credibility lost.
The President made sure to include this possibility in his concluding words; "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." The President's poignant conclusion was meant to touch at the heart strings of all Americans, an emotional plea for support, while invoking strong American patriotism.
The President's conversations with Senate leaders earlier in the day on Capitol Hill emphasized his new foreign policy focus towards Syria portraying to the world a "peace through strength" mentality. On Tuesday, President Obama not only borrowed Republican President Ronald Reagan's (1981-1989) philosophy, but also one of his phrases when speaking on Capitol Hill, saying "trust, but verify" when speaking about Russia's Syria disarmament proposal. The President emphasized to Senate leaders the need to support a proposed military strike, if it does not remain a threat to Syria, the diplomatic mission will never work.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV speaking of the new position, stated; "If we're going to have any success diplomatically in the future on this issue, we have to make sure that the credible threat of military action remains. It's important to understand that the only reason Russia is seeking an alternative to military action is that the president of the United States has made it very clear that we will act if we must." While Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del described what Obama told them; "His basic message was this: With a threat of a military response, we'll have a much better chance with Syria and Russia. If we don't keep that threat open, they may very well walk away."
President Obama strongly spoke of still resorting to military action if diplomacy fails, however, the moment has passed; the lapse in time from the attack, the delayed Senate vote, lack of support and Obama's unwillingness to use his Presidential authority to pursue a strike shows how unlikely it is from now occurring. Russia's proposal might have saved Obama from an embarrassing Congressional vote, but it also proved the United States can be deterred from the decisive world leading action that has been the nation's hallmark for over 70 years.
President Barack Obama Remarks in Address to the Nation on Syria, Sept. 10, 2013
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are US, Canadian & Israeli politics.