The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Obama made a very good argument on Syria — and a very bad one

First, the news: President Obama announced tonight that he has "asked the leaders of Congress to postpone a vote to authorize the use of force while we pursue this diplomatic path."

So for now, the vote is off. The deal with Russia is on.

The problem is that if the diplomatic path is going to work, Russia and Syria need to believe Obama's threat to use force is credible. That means Obama needs to win enough public and congressional support that his threats remain credible. The result was an odd speech: One that had to make the case for war the administration was seeking on Sunday even as it pivoted toward the diplomatic solution the administration lucked into on Monday.

The White House had a surprisingly encouraging story to tell tonight: Already, the threat of military force has gotten Russia and Syria to propose concessions that were unthinkable mere weeks ago. The two have agreed, at least in principle, that if the United States forswears force against Syria, then Syria will sign the treaty against chemical weapons and give up its stockpiles of deadly gas. It would be a huge victory in the century-long fight to eradicate chemical weapons.

That deal will fall apart if Syria and Russia conclude that the White House's threats are empty. Obama needs the country's backing to strike Syria so he can strike a diplomatic bargain to get rid of Assad's chemical arsenal, thus ending America's interest in striking Syria.

But Obama can't get that support by going on prime time and asking Americans to help him bluff Russia. So in trying to win the country's backing, Obama opened with a very bad argument -- one that fundamentally misleads Americans about the nature of the intervention the president is proposing.

The situation profoundly changed, though, on August 21st, when Assad's government gassed to death over a thousand people, including hundreds of children. The images from this massacre are sickening, men, women, children lying in rows, killed by poison gas, others foaming at the mouth, gasping for breath, a father clutching his dead children, imploring them to get up and walk. On that terrible night, the world saw in gruesome detail the terrible nature of chemical weapons and why the overwhelming majority of humanity has declared them off limits, a crime against humanity and a violation of the laws of war.

He made a similarly emotional argument at the end:

And so to my friends on the right, I ask you to reconcile your commitment to America’s military might with the 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, for sometimes resolutions and statements of condemnation are simply not enough.
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?

The middle of the speech included more careful points about chemical weapons. But the big opening and closing were dedicated to a vivid, urgent and moral case against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's atrocities. But that just serves to highlight what Obama is not proposing: Ending the bloodshed in Syria.

Most Americans aren't paying close attention to the civil war in Syria. They don't know that more than 100,000 Syrians have died, and that chemical weapons account for less than 1 percent of those casualties. It's borderline perverse to use descriptions of pain, suffering and death to justify an intervention that would leave the cause of more than 99 percent of these deaths untouched. As Time's Michael Crowley tweeted, "The images of children crippled by conventional bombs were sickening, too."

To put it simply, if it is "the images of children writhing in pain and going still on a cold hospital floor" that motivate our intervention in Syria, why should we care whether the children were attacked with gas or steel?

If Obama's diplomatic path works, Assad will begin destroying his chemical weapons even as he continues slaughtering the opposition with conventional weapons. The Obama administration hopes, of course, that that won't happen -- that the deal to disarm him will open negotiating space for a deal to end the conflict. But there's no guarantee of that. France's draft U.N. Security Council resolution -- which the United States supports -- is silent on Assad's conventional weapons, and his use of them. That's a silence no reasonable viewer would infer from Obama's speech.

At this point, the White House has a surprisingly good plan to avoid war while achieving the limited goal of disarming Assad's chemical arsenal. But it relies on them making a very bad argument for a much larger war with much broader, more humanitarian, objectives.