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.”
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”: