Annotating Harry Reid’s Syria speech on the Senate floor

September 9, 2013

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid took to the Senate floor this afternoon to make an impassioned plea for Congress to approve a military strike against Syria, a prospect that looks increasingly unlikely.


Harry Reid

Reid referenced the Holocaust, World War I and Dante(!) in his remarks. His full speech -- as prepared for delivery -- is below. We offered a few analytic annotations in bold.

The first large-scale, military use of deadly chemical weapons occurred almost 100 years ago, when the German army deployed chlorine gas during World War I. During that war, there were 1,200,000 causalities from attacks with deadly toxins – chlorine gas, mustard gas and other terrible, deathly and destructive chemical agents. Great Britain, Austria, Hungary, France, Germany, Italy and the United States all suffered losses.

“This is a horrible weapon,” wrote German Major Karl von Zingler, who reported a first-hand battlefield account of the carnage to his superior officers. One hundred thousand soldiers died and most of the other casualties were debilitated for life by exposure to these deadly toxins.

The effects of these killers were horrific. Those that didn’t die suffered blindness, burns, blisters and labored breathing. And for those who died, the end was as terrible as anything one can imagine. The great World War I-era British poet, Wilfred Owen, wrote that gassed soldiers cried out like men on fire as they drowned in air thick with poison.

The world was horrified by the gruesomeness of these new, evil weapons of war. And so, as a global community, we agreed that these weapons should be banished from the battlefield forever.

But despite the success of global efforts to eliminate their use, today the Syrian government is the second largest holder of chemical weapons in the world, only a little behind North Korea. The well-documented use of these toxic and unsavory stockpiles by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is a certain violation of the overwhelming international consensus forged against these weapons nearly 10 decades past. It is also a clear violation of human decency. Reid is reiterating the moral argument that the Obama Administration has seemingly settled on in recent days.  That is, this isn't really about American policy interest -- it's about right versus wrong.

This is not the first time Assad has used chemical weapons against his own citizens. But it is the most gruesome and extensive. The August 21st attacks killed more than a thousand civilians, including hundreds of children.

This week the United States Senate will further examine the evidence proving the viciousness of the attacks and discuss their brutal results. The innocent civilians killed by the Syrian government during those attacks died terrible deaths – deaths just as painful and shocking as those suffered on the battlefields of World War I, deaths just as terrible as those that convinced the global community almost 100 years ago to outlaw the use of such brutal tactics against soldiers, and of course against the type of innocent civilians that Assad murdered last month.

The evidence that the Assad regime used outlawed nerve agents against its own citizens is clear and convincing. The Syrian government has worked hard to hide the gruesome evidence by repeatedly bombing the site of these grisly attacks. But satellite imagery, signals intercepts and even amateur video shot by eyewitnesses paint a clear picture of the brutality of this regime.

Without question, this brutality demands a response. That is why President Barack Obama sought approval two weeks ago for targeted military action that will hold President Assad accountable for these heinous acts.

Congress has done its due diligence. Since President Obama announced that he would seek Congressional approval for limited military action against Syria, the Senate has held many committee hearings and briefings, in addition to five classified, all-members briefings. There are more briefings and much debate to come this week, plus open debate in the United States Senate.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on a bipartisan basis, passed a resolution that restricts the use of military force to 60 days, with a single thirty-day extension. The resolution reflects President Obama’s proposal for limited military action – including strikes of limited duration, and scope. And the resolution plainly states that there may be no U.S. military boots on the ground. Reid trying to -- still -- clean up the mess Secretary of State John Kerry created when opened the door to "boots on the ground" during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last week. The message here from Reid is clear: This is not Iraq. There is no open-ended commitment. Heck, he uses "open-ended" in the next sentence.

America’s intention, as specified in the resolution, is not to engage in an open-ended conflict or invasion. See? Nor is it the Commander in Chief’s intention to commit ground troops to this conflict or to effect regime change. The United States Senate will be voting, rather, to uphold a century-long international consensus that chemical weapons have no place on the battlefield – and certainly no place in attacking innocent civilians. This standard demands any government or dictator found to have used chemical weapons be held accountable.

Some may disagree with my conclusions. I don’t expect everyone to agree with my statement. That is your right. But this is my firm conviction. A clear sign to those Democrats on the fence that Reid isn't asking them as "good Democrats" to get in line on this vote. He's making it obvious that this is a personal for him, not political.

Today, many Americans say that these atrocities are none of our business – that they’re not our concern. I disagree.  Any time the powerful turn such weapons of terror and destruction against the powerless, it is our business.

And the weapons in question are categorically different. Chemical weapons can kill not just dozens of people or hundreds of people, but tens of thousands of innocents in a single attack.

These weapons don’t just pose a threat to the Syrian people or to our allies in the region. They pose a threat to every American – and in particular every member of the United States Armed Forces. If we allow the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons to go unchecked and unanswered, hostile forces around the world will also assume these terrible tactics of demons like Assad are permissible. That America cannot allow. Again, Reid is echoing President Obama here.  The argument is not just about Syria, it's about what the lesson other rogue actors in the world will learn if America doesn't punish Syria for its use of chemical weapons. This is, almost to the word, the argument Obama made at his G20 press conference last Friday.

That is why the massacres in Syria are our business and our concern – both as humans and as Americans. America’s willingness to stand for what is right should not end at its borders.

Our intervention on behalf of those in danger hasn’t always been popular. There has always been a part of our society that prefers isolation. But sitting on the sidelines isn’t what made the United States of America the greatest nation in the world in years past and, yes – today. And sitting on the sidelines won’t make us a better nation tomorrow. A VERY strong pushback by Reid against the likes of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul who are arguing that there is no American interest in Syria.  Dismissing that group as "a part of our society that prefers isolation" leaves no question about how he feels about the Paul/tea party group in the Senate. Reid is also making a case here for Senators to go beyond the public opinion polls -- which are uniformly opposed to a strike in Syria -- by making another moral appeal.

As America faces yet another crisis of conscience – another opportunity to intervene on behalf of humanity – my mind returns to that turning point in the world’s history, when the United States faced down an evil regime that murdered millions of innocent citizens.

Millions and millions of civilians and prisoners of war were murdered by gas in the Nazi death camps: Belsen, Treblinka, Auschwitz. Never again, swore the world. Never again will we permit the use of these poisonous weapons of war.

As you enter the exhibits at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, you see a quote from Dante’s famous Inferno. This is what it says: “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” Talk about your stakes raising! In the space of two paragraphs, Reid mentions not only Dante's conception of Hell but also the Holocaust. This is the sort of comparison President Obama could never get away with but Reid can.

I have thought about those words very often as I have considered whether America should take action to prevent further atrocities in Syria. In Europe in World War II, far too many were neutral. Six million Jews and tens of thousands of gypsies, disabled people, gay people and political dissidents were murdered. Never again.

Now, we are faced with a choice again.

Some say it is not our fight. Syria is too far away. Some say it is not in our security interest.

Russia, China, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and the United States – we should all remember our history.

Rabbi Hillel, a respected scholar, said more than 2,000 years ago: “If I care only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” I, Harry Reid, say: If not now, when?

I believe America must set the example for the rest of the world. If America must once again lead – as we have before and as we will again – to set an example for the world, so be it. That is America. That is who we are. That is what we do. That is the stand we take. That is an American tradition of which I am proud, and a tradition I have faith will continue.

An amazing -- and amazingly personal -- speech from Reid. Particularly when you consider that the Syria resolution faces long odds when it comes to passing Congress. For those who forget politics is often personal, this speech is a good reminder.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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