September 11, 2013
Here's the president, waving. (Nikki Kahn /Post)
Here’s the president, waving. (Nikki Kahn /Post)

On Tuesday night, the president addressed the American people on the subject of a possible military response to the apparent use of chemical weapons in Syria, even though a possible diplomatic solution has recently reared its hypothetical head and the congressional vote on military action has been postponed.

Sometimes, when you haven’t talked to someone in a while, you get asked, “How are you?” and the answer is, “Meh,” coupled with a shrug of the shoulders, but instead you wind up talking for almost twenty minutes, to everyone’s bafflement.

President Obama’s Syria speech bore a certain undeniable resemblance to that conversation. The following is the speech, slightly condensed and with my annotations in italics, with apologies to everyone involved.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: My fellow Americans, tonight I want to talk to you about Syria — why it matters, and where we go from here.

If you read the 9 Questions About Syria You Were Too Embarrassed To Ask, you can skip these first few paragraphs, in which I attempt to explain the Syrian conflict using simple, 8th-grade level words, since studies find that this is the reading comprehension level where Americans like their speeches. Just for some historical context, World War I was terrible. World War II was also terrible. Both of these wars involved chemical weapons.

Chemical weapons were used in Syria. If you already saw the video and images from the August 21 massacre, you can skip the next few paragraphs. If you have not already seen them, please, go watch them, and tell me you are as horrified as I was.

…This is not a world we should accept. This is what’s at stake. And that is why, after careful deliberation, I determined that it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike. The purpose of this strike would be to deter Assad from using chemical weapons, to degrade his regime’s ability to use them, and to make clear to the world that we will not tolerate their use. That’s what I think, I think! But what do YOU think?

That’s my judgment as Commander-in-Chief. But I’m also the President of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy. Unless that’s Montenegro. So even though I possess the authority to order military strikes, I believed it was right, in the absence of a direct or imminent threat to our security, to take this debate to Congress. I believe our democracy is stronger when the President acts with the support of Congress. And I believe that America acts more effectively abroad when we stand together. Hear that, Congress? “Together.”

Now, I know that after the terrible toll of Iraq and Afghanistan, the idea of any military action, no matter how limited, is not going to be popular. In fact, this is a huge understatement. The last time I checked, fewer people liked this idea than considered Nickelback to be an excellent band. After all, I’ve spent four and a half years working to end wars, not to start them. SERIOUSLY, WORLD, I THOUGHT WE AGREED I WAS GOING TO HAVE A NICE RELAXED FALL SELLING OBAMACARE TO THE AMERICAN PEOPLE. Our troops are out of Iraq. Our troops are coming home from Afghanistan. And I know Americans want all of us in Washington — especially me — to concentrate on the task of building our nation here at home: putting people back to work, educating our kids, growing our middle class. AAARRGH.

It’s no wonder, then, that you’re asking hard questions. So let me answer some of the most important questions that I’ve heard from members of Congress, and that I’ve read in letters that you’ve sent to me. Now, it is time for me to ask myself some questions! I carefully selected the most important questions, which coincidentally are also the ones I feel most capable of answering in ten minutes or fewer.

First, many of you have asked, won’t this put us on a slippery slope to another war? One man wrote to me that we are “still recovering from our involvement in Iraq.” A veteran put it more bluntly: “This nation is sick and tired of war.” Okay, fine that last person was me. I wrote that letter to myself.

My answer is simple: I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria. Or sandals on the ground, Kenneth Cole. You moron. I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan. I will not pursue a prolonged air campaign like Libya or Kosovo. This would be a targeted strike to achieve a clear objective: deterring the use of chemical weapons, and degrading Assad’s capabilities.

Others have asked whether it’s worth acting if we don’t take out Assad. As some members of Congress have said, there’s no point in simply doing a “pinprick” strike in Syria. Coincidentally, “pinpricks” is also how I like to refer to those members of Congress, but this is a family speech so, er, never mind.

Let me make something clear: The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks. Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver. 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. But a targeted strike can make Assad, or any other dictator, think twice before using chemical weapons. You would think, given the sheer horrifying numbers of people who were dying with regular weapons, you wouldn’t have felt any need to get any other kind of weapons involved. Thousands upon thousands! And no one in the international community was doing anything!

Other questions involve the dangers of retaliation. We don’t dismiss any threats, but the Assad regime does not have the ability to seriously threaten our military. Any other retaliation they might seek is in line with threats that we face every day. Neither Assad nor his allies have any interest in escalation that would lead to his demise. And our ally, Israel, can defend itself with overwhelming force, as well as the unshakeable support of the United States of America. Seriously. We’re fine. We are not the world’s policeman, but, you know, if the world even needed someone to be its policeman, we would totally be the first pick.

Many of you have asked a broader question: Why should we get involved at all in a place that’s so complicated, and where — as one person wrote to me — “those who come after Assad may be enemies of human rights?” Alright, alright, I also wrote this to myself.

It’s true that some of Assad’s opponents are extremists. But al Qaeda will only draw strength in a more chaotic Syria if people there see the world doing nothing to prevent innocent civilians from being gassed to death. That’s right, “only”! Oddly, Al Qaeda does not gain strength when innocent civilians perish in any other manner. It surprised me too! The majority of the Syrian people — and the Syrian opposition we work with — just want to live in peace, with dignity and freedom. And the day after any military action, we would redouble our efforts to achieve a political solution that strengthens those who reject the forces of tyranny and extremism.

Finally, many of you have asked: Why not leave this to other countries, or seek solutions short of force? As several people wrote to me, “We should not be the world’s policeman.”As a larger concern, why are we only answering people who wrote letters? The people who still write letters these days tend to be either very old or very strange, and frequently. These questions seem valid enough, but what about, you know, emails? Or tweets! Or at least Gchats. I thought this administration was all about new media.

I agree, and I have a deeply held preference for peaceful solutions. Over the last two years, my administration has tried diplomacy and sanctions, warning and negotiations — but chemical weapons were still used by the Assad regime. They also used regular weapons, but, again, those are fine. Did I mention we are not the world’s policemen?

However, over the last few days, we’ve seen some encouraging signs. In part because of the credible threat of U.S. military action, as well as constructive talks that I had with President Putin, the Russian government has indicated a willingness to join with the international community in pushing Assad to give up his chemical weapons. The Assad regime has now admitted that it has these weapons, and even said they’d join the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits their use. In fact, I’m not sure why I’m giving this speech right now.

It’s too early to tell whether this offer will succeed, and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments. But this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force, particularly because Russia is one of Assad’s strongest allies.

I have, therefore, asked the leaders of Congress to postpone a vote to authorize the use of force while we pursue this diplomatic path. To be honest, this was anticlimactic. I’m sending Secretary of State John Kerry to meet his Russian counterpart on Thursday, and I will continue my own discussions with President Putin. I will also continue to compliment him on his judo skills.

I’ve spoken to the leaders of two of our closest allies, France and the United Kingdom, and we will work together in consultation with Russia and China to put forward a resolution at the U.N. Security Council requiring Assad to give up his chemical weapons, and to ultimately destroy them under international control. We’ll also give U.N. inspectors the opportunity to report their findings about what happened on August 21st. And we will continue to rally support from allies from Europe to the Americas — from Asia to the Middle East — who agree on the need for action.

Meanwhile, I’ve ordered our military to maintain their current posture to keep the pressure on Assad, and to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails. And tonight, I give thanks again to our military and their families for their incredible strength and sacrifices.

My fellow Americans, for nearly seven decades, the United States has been the anchor of global security. This has meant doing more than forging international agreements — it has meant enforcing them. The burdens of leadership are often heavy, but the world is a better place because we have borne them.

And so, to my friends on the right, I ask you to reconcile your commitment to America’s military might with a failure to act when a cause is so plainly just. To my friends on the left, I ask you to reconcile your belief in freedom and dignity for all people with those images of children writhing in pain, and going still on a cold hospital floor. And to my friends in the middle, you wonderful nine or so percent who were with me from the get-go, thank you. Who ARE you? Thank you. For sometimes resolutions and statements of condemnation are simply not enough. But, you know, sometimes they are.

Indeed, 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? But ask it in a rhetorical sort of way where the answer turns out to be “A much worse world! The president is right.”

Franklin Roosevelt once said, “Our national determination to keep free of foreign wars and foreign entanglements cannot prevent us from feeling deep concern when ideals and principles that we have cherished are challenged.” 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. Here is a quote from Franklin Roosevelt, who brought us into World War II, which, by comparison, was HUGE! This, by comparison, is unbelievably small, although only by comparison, not objectively.

America is not the world’s policeman. What are we not? Say it with me now: 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. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth.

Thank you. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America. I’m off to call Putin again. I hope he picks up this time.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.