President Says American Ideals, Security At Stake In Syrian Crisis

Sep 10, 2013

President Barack Obama meets with Members of Congress to discuss Syria in the Cabinet Room of the White House.
Credit Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

In a prime time speech that followed two weeks of high-stakes drama, President Obama asked the American people Tuesday night to support a military strike against Syria.

"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." Obama said.

"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."

President Obama spent most of the 15-minute speech making the case for the use of force against Syria, saying his administration has tried "diplomacy and sanctions, warnings and negotiations" but Assad still used chemical weapons.

A Russian plan to avoid an international military confrontation, however, is "encouraging," and came about "in part because of the threat of military action."

“It's too early to tell whether this offer will succeed," Obama said, but he has asked Congress to postpone a vote "while we peruse this diplomatic path."

President Obama closed by calling upon American values.

"Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria," Obama said.

And if the country can stop a dictator from gassing his own citizens, including children, with "moderate effort and risk," he said, "we should act."

Obama says he has asked Congress to put the Syria vote on hold, while his administration pursues the Russian proposal.

"I have ordered our military to maintain their current posture to keep the pressure on Assad, and to be in a position to respond," Obama said.

Obama says that an attack on Syria would not be comparable to the invasion of Iraq or even the NATO strikes on Kosovo.

This would be a "limited strike," Obama said, that doesn't risk dragging the country into another war.

"It is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons," Obama said, because if the U.S. and the world look away, other tyrants will seek those weapons and use them. American troops, said Obama, would be in harm’s way.

"A failure to stand against the use of chemical weapons would weaken prohibitions against other weapons of mass destruction," Obama said.

The past couple of weeks have seen Obama on the precipice of taking the country to war with Syria, only to slow down and seek Congressional approval.

The last couple of days brought more high-stakes drama, when a potential diplomatic solution materialized from a seemingly off-the-cuff suggestion by Secretary of State John Kerry, who said the U.S. was willing to back off from its war footing, if Syria gave up its entire chemical arsenal quickly and in a verifiable manner.

The Politics

The New York Times reported that President Obama delivered a very simple message to Senate Republicans when he met with them Tuesday evening: "Do not undermine my authority to threaten military action against Syria."

"I think he is very concerned that Congress not undercut that ability to threaten force," the paper quotes Sen. Susan Collins. "Which obviously, if he got a negative vote, he feels he would lose some leverage."

Convincing The American Public

This speech represents the culmination of a public relations blitz designed to sell military action to a war-weary American public.

Remember, Obama gave interviews to all the major television networks Tuesday and, all week, administration officials have been making their case to lawmakers in Congress.

Poll after poll, however, has shown that this is a deeply unpopular proposition. To that end, Jennifer Bendery, who covers the White House for the Huffington Post, tweeted a picture of protestors demonstrating outside the White House this evening.

They are holding a lighted sign that reads: "No War On Syria."

Walking The Line

In its story previewing the speech, the AP focused on the line Obama must walk between the threat of a military strike and the "hope of diplomacy."

It was a balancing act that was already on display the last two days:

"Despite expressing skepticism about the outcome of the diplomacy, officials said, Obama and close Senate allies reaffirmed their decision for a pause in attempts to win congressional backing for a strike against President Bashar Assad's government.

"And while a presidential statement to that effect was possible in Obama's nationwide speech, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel pointedly told a congressional hearing it was not time to let the threat lapse. 'For this diplomatic option to have a chance at succeeding, the threat of a U.S. military action, the credible, real threat of U.S. military action, must continue,' he declared."