Syria speech: What we learned about Obama (+video)
The suffering of children – mentioned seven times in the speech – sparks Obama's moral outrage like nothing else. And his presidential 'bubble' isn't as impervious as some might think.
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“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.”Skip to next paragraph
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Obama presented some of the questions, then answered them, almost like a Q & A with the American people, but without the possibility for followups.
Won’t his call for limited air strikes in Syria, aimed at degrading its chemical weapons capability, just put the nation on “a slippery slope to another war,” the president said many Americans have asked.
“My answer is simple: I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria,” Obama said. “I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan. I will not pursue a prolonged air campaign like Libya or Kosovo.”
Other questions – What’s the point of getting involved without removing Syria’s dictator, President Bashar al-Assad? And what would a "pinprick" strike accomplish? – elicited this response, which allowed him to reinforce his point that Syria won’t turn into another Iraq.
“The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks. Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver,” Obama said.
“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.”
Additional questions allowed the president to rebut other objections that have led solid majorities of Americans to oppose airstrikes in Syria, and made congressional authorization impossible, for now.
On the danger of retaliation, Obama offered an assurance that the Assad regime does not have the ability to seriously threaten the US military. On concerns for Israel, he asserted that nation’s ability to defend itself with “overwhelming force” – and the “unshakeable support” of the US.
On the question of whether enemies of the US – like Al Qaeda – might be strengthened by an attack on the Assad regime, Obama made this promise: “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.”
Obama acknowledged twice the oft-repeated charge that the US should not be the “world’s policeman.” And while agreeing with that sentiment, he rebutted the notion that that should mean doing nothing – bringing his argument back to children.
“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,” he said.
The followup questions to the president’s answers began even before the speech concluded. Where is the iron-clad evidence that the Assad regime was behind the chemical weapons attack? How can Americans be 100 percent certain, under the law of unintended consequences, that a limited airstrike won’t morph into a larger engagement? After all, at a Senate hearing last week, Secretary Kerry refused to rule out “boots on the ground” in Syria before changing his tune moments later.
That Americans – Republican, Democratic, and independent – are war-weary may be an understatement, making his unexpected request for congressional approval on Syrian airstrikes a lingering mystery.
In his speech, Obama said he believed American democracy is stronger when the president acts with Congress’s support. But even recently, in the case of Libya, US forces acted without upfront congressional approval.
Taking his case on Syria to Congress was always predicated on “the absence of a direct or imminent threat to our security,” as Obama put it Tuesday night. So if the diplomatic avenue that opened this week doesn’t pan out, Obama may still act militarily, even without Congress’s blessing. And in the meantime, Syria’s knowledge that Obama believes he can act unilaterally could provide the leverage needed to bring Assad to heel.