Obama’s speech on Syria: Why our analysts are mostly hopeful

President Obama addresses the nation Tuesday on Syria.
President Obama addresses the nation Tuesday on Syria.
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

President Obama addressed the nation Tuesday evening about the escalating crisis in Syria and whether the U.S. will take military action to punish President Bashar Assad for allegedly using chemical weapons on his own people.

“Because these weapons can kill on a mass scale, with no distinction between soldier and infant, the civilized world has spent a century working to ban them,” Obama said. “On Aug. 21, these basic rules were violated, along with our sense of common humanity.”

Failing to hold Assad accountable for violating these international norms, Obama warned, would be a “danger to our security.”

TRANSCRIPT: The argument for action on Syria

Still, we didn’t get a definitive answer from our war-weary president, who reminded the American people that he’s “spent 4 1/2 years working to end wars, not to start them.” Instead, he left us in a state of limbo. Yes, he’ll push for limited military strikes if necessary, but he said he’d rather find a diplomatic solution that would align with his “deeply held preference for peaceful solutions.”


Here’s what a few of our Op-Ed contributors had to say in response to Obama’s speech.

Peter Galbraith, author of “A dilemma for Syria’s minorities”:

Obama may be on the verge of converting a foreign policy fiasco into a stunning diplomatic triumph. Last week, the president appeared isolated internationally (not even the British would go along with airstrikes on Syria) and in danger of losing a congressional vote on the use of force that he didn’t need and that would tie his hands. And, disconcertingly for his base (me included), he sounded a lot like President George W. Bush when he said we wouldn’t wait for the U.N. inspectors to complete their work and that the United States did not need to go to the United Nations to authorize a military attack.

In his speech, Obama began by making the case for airstrikes but ended by talking about a diplomatic solution through the United Nations.

Now, instead of trying to avert a losing vote in Congress, the president can pursue a winnable resolution in the United Nations Security Council to implement the Russian proposal to place Syrian chemical weapons under U.N. supervision. As a practical matter, it may be difficult to have full supervision of Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles that are dispersed around a country in the midst of a civil war. But the Russian proposal, which Syria has accepted, would seem to offer a much better chance of preventing the Assad regime from again using these weapons.

While the administration’s maneuvering since the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack has not been elegant, it appears to be working. Obama rightly took credit for the threats that produced the Russian proposal, and the success -- if it materializes -- reflects well on his new foreign policy team, especially Secretary of State John F. Kerry and U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power.

Peter W. Galbraith is a former U.S. ambassador and the author of two books on the Iraq war.

Tom Hayden, a regular contributor to our Op-Ed pages:

The dominant mantra we heard from the president’s allies Tuesday was that it was the credible threat of American military force that caused Russia, Syria and Iran to agree to dismantle Assad’s chemical weapons. If that argument keeps us out of another war, it deserves some credit, even if it’s only partly true.

But it could also be said that it was the “credible threat” of democracy -- a defeat of his war plan in Congress and in public opinion polls -- that caused the Obama administration to back away from the military brink and seek an honorable way out.

Interestingly, however, Obama may have been leaving himself an exit by asking Congress to authorize the vote, knowing that the prospects were dim. His traditional allies at MoveOn, for example, have gathered hundreds of thousands of petitions to rein him in too.

If diplomacy is successful, Obama will be able to claim victory against the chemical threat without a massive intervention. Assad can sit on his throne a bit longer, shorn of some dangerous weapons. Syrians can be protected from gas attacks. Russia, Iran and China can disavow chemical warfare while claiming to prevent regime change. A peace conference is in sight.

Brilliant if it happens.

Tom Hayden, a former state senator, is the author of “Street Wars” and is a longtime advocate of prison reform.

Robin Wright, author of “The risk of taking on Syria”:

There is now a glimmer of hope on Syria, with the emphasis on “glimmer” because of huge questions for which there are still no answers.

The first basic issue is how to find, contain and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons -- and ensure they are indeed all found. This is a hugely time-consuming and logistical challenge. It’s Iraq déjà vu from the 1990s, which dragged on for years -- without a war going on in the background.

Second, the latest Russian gambit to get the U.S. to renounce any future use of force in exchange for Assad turning over his chemical weapons is unlikely to fly in Washington. It may even rally Congress behind Obama a bit.

Third, we all hope for renewed diplomacy to settle the bigger crisis -- the civil war itself -- but the political realities and divisions among the opposition forces won’t change as a result of any deal on chemical weapons. The Russians might actually get Assad to send a delegation to Geneva. But even if the West can prod some artificial faces-of-the-month to attend on behalf of the divided opposition, there’s no guarantee that the opposition could actually deliver anything from folks fighting inside. The growing factionalization of Syria’s opposition has put peace further away than ever.

Fourth, 99% of deaths are due to conventional weaponry. So a deal on chemical weapons is, unfortunately, unlikely to change the realities or fatalities on the ground. The fighting may still rage, with Assad actually getting a psychological boost at home from his deal with the outside world. Tragic but true.

Finally, I’d love to be wrong about all of this.

Robin Wright, the author of “Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World,” is a distinguished scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson Center.

Charles A. Stevenson, author of “Congress and the power to declare war”:

The president obviously wants to back the push for a U.N.-authorized removal of Syrian chemical weapons with the threat of force. For that threat to be credible, however, Congress would actually have to pass a law authorizing airstrikes if the diplomatic effort fails within some limited time period. It’s unclear what the president’s timetable is, and also unclear whether lawmakers are willing to give that conditional approval, so we may be slipping into a confusing situation where neither friend nor foe knows what America might do.

I still believe it’s important for Congress to act, and the bipartisan measure being crafted in the Senate might be the best vehicle. For what it’s worth, previous Congresses have enacted contingent authorizations of the use of force: in 1955, to defend Taiwan if attacked; in 1957, to defend Middle Eastern nations if attacked by a communist nation; in 1991 and 2002, to attack Iraq if U.N. efforts failed. Congress doesn’t have to do exactly what the president proposes, but it owes it to the country to find some way of limiting both any use of chemical weapons and a wider war in the Middle East.

Charles A. Stevenson teaches at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and is the author of “Congress at War: The Politics of Conflict since 1789.”

Rajan Menon, author of “Don’t use U.S. credibility as a reason to attack Syria”:

Even Obama’s opponents agree that he is a gifted speaker; he proved that again Tuesday. The rhythm, pace, cadence -- all were, once again, executed effectively, and Obama appealed movingly to Americans’ ideals and to their humanity.

But even exceptional orators can fail when their case is substantively shaky. And the administration’s case -- witness the uphill battle it faces in persuading Congress and the public -- has been shaky. It remains so after the president’s speech.

Obama and his foreign policy team have tried to have it both ways. On the one hand, they insist that Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons to kill more than 1,000 people on Aug. 21 presents a grave threat, not just to the Unites States but also to the laws and norms that help constitute the international order. Secretary of State Kerry, who has engaged in several rhetorical flights of fancy lately, warned on one occasion that we faced a “Munich moment.”

On the other hand, Obama and Kerry insist that they envisage a limited, “targeted” strike that wouldn’t change the arithmetic on Syria’s battlefield -- which favors Assad -- let alone drag war-weary Americans into yet another conflict. But such an attack would allow Assad to continue the killing. So much for the Munich analogy.

The public sees the contradiction; that’s clear from recent opinion polls. So does Congress. Nothing the president said, though he said it well, will put to rest Americans’ deep, pervasive doubts about what precisely he proposes to achieve by attacking Syria.

Obama painted a poignant picture of innocent Syrians suffering horribly and then dying after being gassed. Chemical weapons do, as the president said, kill indiscriminately. But for more than two years the Syrian tyrant has used various other weapons that have also inflicted enormous suffering on Syrians, killing more than 100,000 people. Yet the same ideals that he invoked did not prompt Obama to order an attack on Assad. Why? It’s not for us to resolve other people’s civil war, said the president.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has thrown Obama, whom he doesn’t much like, a lifeline, possibly saving him from an embarrassing repudiation by his own legislature. The congressional vote will be delayed until it’s clear whether Assad intends to make good on the Russian proposal to gather, tally and destroy his chemical weapons (which his government has long insisted it does not have). The action now shifts to the U.N. Security Council, where the U.S., Russia and China will be the decisive players.

The day of reckoning for Assad, and Obama, appears to have been delayed. Stay tuned.

Rajan Menon is a professor of political science at the City College of New York/City University of New York and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Chris Edelson, who wrote “Obama and the power to go to war”:

Less than two weeks ago, the Obama administration appeared determined to take military action against Syria. A familiar pattern seemed to be playing out. Since World War II, presidents have claimed unilateral power to use military force without authorization from Congress. Obama had already followed this precedent himself when he ordered military action in Libya in 2011 without seeking approval from Congress.

Despite the fact that unilateral presidential military action can only be justified under the Constitution when the president is responding to an attack or imminent attack against the United States, presidential practice has stubbornly asserted itself as precedent -- in part because Congress has consistently failed to check presidential authority.

This time, surprisingly, it was different. In the speech Obama gave Tuesday, he acknowledged that, given the fact that the United States faced and faces no imminent threat from Syria, the better course was for him to go to Congress. Congress deserves credit for asserting itself -- more than 100 legislators signed on to letters insisting that the president not act alone, creating mounting pressure on Obama to rethink his approach. The president also deserves credit for recognizing that going to Congress was the right thing to do.

The speech showed why Obama was right to go to Congress -- as he emphasized, diplomatic efforts have begun to show promise. When he announced his decision to seek legislative approval, critics argued that he was undermining the power of the presidency. John Yoo, a Department of Justice lawyer in the George W. Bush administration who has championed broad, essentially unchecked, presidential power, insisted that only the president could take the quick, decisive military action required. As Obama observed Tuesday, though, speedy action was not what was needed. Sometimes, it is better not to act. The benefit, in this case, was that diplomacy has been given a chance to work. If nothing else, the chain of events over the last 10 days should put to rest the argument that presidents are best positioned to make decisions about the use of military force because they have the ability to act quickly.

As Congress has begun to consider a use-of-force resolution authorizing military action in Syria, some have asked what Obama would do if lawmakers said no. He has said -- and he said again Tuesday night -- that he believes he has the authority to act alone (though he is wrong about this, in my view). However, Obama said that he has asked Congress to postpone voting on the pending legislation. This is a wise move that ought to divert attention from the question of what he might do if Congress votes no. As the president suggested, putting off voting in Congress gives more time for diplomatic efforts to play out. It also provides additional evidence that those like Yoo who insist on the value of speedy presidential action in the context of war are wrong. Outside of the emergency context, unilateral presidential military action is neither wise nor constitutional. Sometimes, immediate military action isn’t the right choice.

Chris Edelson is an assistant professor of government in American University’s School of Public Affairs, where he teaches classes on the Constitution and presidential power. He is the author of the forthcoming book, “Emergency Presidential Power: From the Drafting of the Constitution to the War on Terror.”


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