Published Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013 | 5:30 p.m.
Updated Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013 | 7:20 p.m.
President Barack Obama told the nation why he has been pushing for a military strike in Syria, but stopped short of actually issuing a call to arms tonight.
“When dictators commit atrocities they depend upon the world to look the other way … but these things happened, the facts cannot be denied,” Obama said. “The question now is what the U.S. and the international community is prepared to do about it.”
At this stage, they are not sure.
In the past 36 hours, Russia proposed a way out of a potential military escalation, by giving Syria an opportunity to turn all of its chemical weapons over to international control. The Syrian government agreed, and signed on to the international Chemical Weapons Convention Tuesday morning — it is now up to the United Nations Security Council to iron out and formalize the deal.
But the road to a diplomatic solution is not clear, as Russia and America disagree over whether Obama should have to stop threatening military action if Syria does not fully comply.
During his speech, Obama said that he had ordered U.S. destroyers and other missile-launching ships to remain in the Mediterranean within striking distance of Syria “to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails” — making it clear that he had no intention of backing off threats.
“We’ve seen some encouraging, in part because of the credible threat of U.S. military action,” Obama said, dismissing the suggestion that military strikes could escalate fighting an already critically volatile region. “The Assad regime does not have the ability to seriously threaten our military … and our ally Israel can defend itself with overwhelming force.”
Obama has rested his case for military action by appealing to the country’s collective conscience, citing the images of innocents, especially children, being gassed in the streets.
"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," Obama said.
He went so far as to ask Americans to view videos of gas attacks that he described in detail at the start of his speech. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid showed similar images to Senate Democrats at the start of their lunch meeting with Obama Tuesday afternoon.
“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?” Obama said.
Ironically, the Central Intelligence Agency declassified documents just this week showing that the United States had not only turned a blind eye, it actively assisted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in using nerve gas, mustard gas, and anthrax against civilians in Iran during the 1980s, killing thousands more than have died as a result of similar attacks in Syria.
In making their case, Obama and Reid have stuck to more immediately compelling examples, such as the 1.2 million who died from mustard gas attacks during the First World War, and the victims of the Holocaust who were gassed to death by the Nazis during the Second World War.
Obama also argued that though Americans “should not be the world’s policemen,” the United States had a special responsibility to ensure that no dictator again would take the opportunity to use chemical weapons.
“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 not think twice about acquiring them and using them,” Obama said. “Al Qaeda will only draw strength in a more chaotic Syria if people there do not see the world do anything to keep people from being gassed to death.”
“For nearly seven decades the US has been the anchor of global security,” Obama said. “I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional.”
But the president acknowledged that America is also tired of that responsibility when it brings war.
He acknowledged that the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan had set the country against his plans — but also made a series of pledges to keep the scope of a strike limited.
“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,” Obama said. “This would be a targeted strike to achieve a clear objective … even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver.”
But for now, such a strike — and the case for it — is at best, theoretical. Obama explained that he asked congressional leaders to postpone votes to authorize a resolution that might have given him a green light to attack Syria. The president also indicated he didn’t want to act without a congressional OK — though he did not expressly promise that he would not use his “authority to order military strikes.”
Obama gave no clear updates as to when the diplomatic discussions taking place at the U.N. might yield a result, save to say that he would wait for the U.N. inspectors who visited Syria in late August to deliver their report before finalizing any decisions.
In the meantime, Obama said he will continue to try to find international allies to support his cause and continue conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin about a diplomatic solution.