President Obama addressed the nation Tuesday night to explain his case for launching limited strikes on Syria to punish its alleged use of chemical weapons. He was unusually direct but still danced, as any politician must, around some of the more awkward truths about his Syria plan. Here's what Obama might have said if he'd taken a couple of truth pills before walking up to the podium.
My fellow Americans, tonight I want to talk to you about Syria, why it matters and where we go from here.
Over the past two years, what began as a series of peaceful protests against the repressive regime of President Bashar al-Assad has turned into a brutal civil war. Over 100,000 people have been killed. Millions have fled to neighboring countries, risking greater instability and sectarian conflict in the region.
The question now is what the United States of America, and the international community, is prepared to do about it. The answer is: not very much.
That's not because we don't care -- my own administration has been publicly divided over how to respond -- but because I believe our options are all terrible. Anything we might do would probably just make things worse and would risk sucking us into a civil war I've worked hard to avoid.
But America now has a narrow opening to make a slight difference. This came about not through difficult negotiations or careful planning but because first myself, and then my secretary of state, made some inadvisably offhand comments about Syria that became official U.S. policy largely by accident.
Earlier this year, I suggested that any Syrian chemical weapons use would be a "red line." I didn't say how I'd respond if that line were crossed, but everyone assumed I meant military intervention. I didn't correct them, so now I'll look bad if I don't follow through.
I've instructed our military to prepare to launch cruise missile strikes that would destroy a few buildings but otherwise have as little non-symbolic impact as possible. Still, I believe this would do some good. But that good is abstract and has less to do with awful videos of dying Syrian children and more to do with complicated nuances of international relations theory. We can't do much to prevent Assad from killing children, which is why we haven't really tried. But if we strike Syria, then future dictators might be less likely to use chemical weapons, which means future wars could be less terrible and claim fewer civilian lives.
It’s true that some of Assad’s opponents are extremists. But you can stop worrying because I'm not prepared to do much to help them.
Let me be clear. I understand that most Americans don't want to commit military resources to curb the actual, ongoing atrocities in Syria. That's not what I'm asking. I'm asking Americans to commit military resources to curb future hypothetical atrocities in a hypothetical war that may or may not happen.
I know the politics of this are awful. Two years ago, I intervened in Libya because I thought it was the right thing to do and a low-cost way to take down a dictator directly responsible for killing Americans. But the American public wasn't impressed, and I got hammered by the same members of Congress who'd urged me to do it. Syria is a political lose-lose for me. So I've asked Congress to vote on strikes and finally take some ownership of U.S. foreign policy.
My secretary of state, John Kerry, rescued us all from this slow-motion train wreck when one of his gaffes worked out for the better. Russia seized on his offhand comment that the United States wouldn't strike Syria if it gave up its chemical weapons, forcing us to pretend we meant it as policy. Fortunately, this would actually be a great outcome for us. It would allow the United States a way to back out, and it would uphold the international norm against chemical weapons that I've been talking about for six months now. It wouldn't stop Assad from killing kids, but that was never on the table anyway.
After careful deliberation, I have determined that it is in the national security interests of the United States to bluff Russia into giving us a Chapter 7 resolution at the United Nations Security Council to remove Syria's chemical weapons. I will do this by threatening strikes that I would probably never carry out because I've couched them in congressional support I'll never get.
If this plan succeeds, the killing in Syria will continue, and I will have tacitly acknowledged Assad's legitimacy. But the world will also have secured a very real and important victory in upholding international norms that are difficult for most people to understand. If it fails, America will return to the sidelines of this conflict, which is exactly what Americans want.
Thank you. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America.