President Barack Obama finally addressed the nation on the topic of Syria on Tuesday night, though almost certainly it was a radically different speech than the one he planned to deliver when it was originally scheduled days earlier. As the news anchors couldn’t stop pointing out, this occasion was the first time a President has addressed the nation in this manner without calling for or announcing a specific course of military action.
Although Obama had made it clear he wanted to authorize strikes in Syria, he faced a few obstacles, not the least of which were a populace that did not support U.S. military action and a Congress that seemed hesitant to sign off on it.
Then on Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry said perhaps strikes could be called off if on the near-impossible condition that Syria surrendered chemical weapons. While Kerry later admitted that these comments were off-the-cuff and not intended as a legitimate offer, the international community thought it was actually a good idea, and even Syria agreed to comply to the terms.
That brings us to Tuesday night when Obama’s speech said he would give peace diplomacy a chance. Sure, much of the speech was still a subtle outline of the reasons to go to war should that diplomacy fail, but Obama was no longer calling attacks a necessity as he once had.
Half of Obama’s speech focused on chemical weapons. He argued that Syria using chemical weapons posed a threat to the U.S.’s national security because it sets a precedent. Obama believes that in not condemning the use of lethal gases or responding with significant consequences, it may encourage other dictators to do the same.
He repeatedly brought up the horrors of the chemical attacks, using imagery of dead children to tug at heartstrings and even encouraging Americans to watch the videos of people dying to see why force against President Bashar al-Assad may be necessary. While the use of chemical weapons is deplorable, the fact that Obama glossed over the 100,000 Syrians who have been killed during the course of the civil war through other means in favor of the chemical incident that killed hundreds clearly demonstrates Obama’s specific focus on the “red line” he established.
That realization also raises more questions. If there is a moral imperative to help Syrians, why did the first 100,000 casualties not warrant action? Moreover, why are chemical weapons that much more objectionable than, say, the bombs Obama intends to drop on Syria?
Obama spent the other half of his speech addressing criticisms he’s received for his stance on Syria:
1. America Doesn’t Want Another War
Obama assured us that the response in Syria wouldn’t be “war,” but a limited series of targets meant to deter Assad. His objective would be to keep Americans off the ground in Syria.
However, Obama may be trying to mislead with his semantics on what constitutes war. No matter how many drone attacks we lead, it is supposedly not warfare because they are targeted assassinations of suspected terrorists… and bystanders. Secrecy about these missions is crucial, primarily so no one gets the [reasonable] impression that these are pretty much acts of war.
2. Syria May Retaliate
Obama didn’t laugh this one off, but he might as well have: “We don’t dismiss any threats, but the Assad regime does not have the ability to seriously threaten our military.”
In truth, he’s probably right here. Syria’s military capabilities are dwarfed in every way by the United States’ army; Assad leading an attack on Americans would be one of the last things he ever did. Still, Obama did say at the beginning of his speech that Syria’s chemical weapon supply poses a threat to America’s national security, so is it a threat or not?
3. Assad’s Opponents Are “Bad Guys,” Too
Obama conceded that extremists currently combating Assad are committing human rights atrocities as well. Though al Qaeda looks poised to possibly take over should Assad’s regime fall, Obama thinks it’s even more likely to occur if Assad gases his people.
It’s remarkable how Obama is minimizing the al Qaeda factor after we’ve spent a decade chasing the group to all corners of the earth to eliminate their influence. However, Obama makes a good point when he says, “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.”
4. Can’t We Let Others Intervene and Sit This One Out?
“For nearly seven decades, the United States has been the anchor of global security,” Obama said. “This has meant doing more than forging international agreement – it has meant enforcing them. The burdens of leadership are often heavy, but the world is a better place because we have borne them.”
Apparently, we must keep doing it because we’ve always done it. Whether the world is better for all of our military interventions is certainly debatable.
It will be interesting to see how things play out in the upcoming days and weeks. For now, Obama slightly stepping back on his position is a welcome reprieve to the majority of Americans who do not approve of military involvement. Though war seemed inevitable just days ago, maybe sometimes the populace’s collective will and some governmental happenstance will prevent us from feeding the military industrial complex… at least for a little while, anyway.