President Obama’s case for punishing Syria for the use of chemical weapons is at war with itself.
Supporters will applaud the nuanced reasoning in his prime time White House address on Tuesday night. But at worst, the president loaded his argument with contradictions. He made the mistake of accurately describing a messy situation for what it is: messy.
When Syrian President Bashar al-Assad killed more than a thousand of his people last month with what appears to be sarin nerve gas, he violated a ban on chemical weapons that emerged from the death-stained trenches of World War I and concentration camps of World War II.
This “represents a danger to our security,” Obama said, because other nations and enemy forces could begin using these lethal toxins that make “no distinction between soldier and infant.” If fighting spilled out from Syria’s ongoing civil war, a U.S. ally such as Israel could be threatened, he said, only to then add that Israel “can defend itself with overwhelming force.”
Perplexed? There’s more.
Despite the stated danger to U.S. national security, Obama later said he asked Congress to approve retaliatory airstrikes against Assad because of “the absence of a direct or imminent threat to our security.”
Things get even more confusing after this contradiction. Obama then explained that he asked Congress to “postpone a vote to authorize the use of force,” as Russia—an Assad ally—had proposed this week a possible deal in which Syria turns over its chemical weapons stockpile.
“It’s too early to tell whether this offer will succeed,” Obama said, but he intends to pursue a diplomatic path even though the past two years of negotiations over Syria have failed.
The president said he had no interest in overthrowing Assad, or starting another war in the Middle East after having worked to wind down the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. But from 2011 to last week, Obama has said that the Syrian dictator must step aside. The United States has been sending arms to rebel groups.
He described any possible bombing of Syria as “limited” and “targeted,” downplaying the size and scope of any military operation. But he then stressed, “The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.” So the airstrike would be small, though not microscopic.
The president has a masterful understanding of nuances. But his argument was compressed into a speech that by its nature raised as many questions as it purported to answer.
Obama downplayed the possibility of any blowback against the United States from Syria. “We don’t dismiss any threats, but the Assad regime does not have the ability to seriously threaten our military,” he said. “Any other retaliation they might seek is in line with threats that we face every day.”
Beneath this confidence, one could not help but think of the 1998 cruise missile strike in the Sudan and Afghanistan to avenge the terrorist bombing of the East Africa U.S. Embassy by al Qaeda. Three years later, al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden—who apparently did not learn the intended lesson—launched the 9/11 attack that brought down the World Trade Center and left the Pentagon smoldering.
Among the rebels fighting Assad are groups sympathetic to the theology and ideals of al Qaeda, a point not lost on the Syrian dictator, who said in an interview this week with broadcaster Charlie Rose that any U.S. bombing “is going to support Al Qaeda and the same people that killed Americans on the 11 of September.”
Not all rebel groups align themselves with aspects of Islamic extremism, a point raised on Tuesday by Najib Ghadbian, who represents the Syrian opposition coalition in the United States.
But for this group, the unwavering focus on chemical weapons has unfairly overshadowed the death of more than a hundred thousand Syrians in the war, a loss that has done less to stir American interests than chemical weapons have.
“Chemical weapons are a small component of this,” Ghadbian said. “The larger component is that Syrians deserve to be protected by the international community. And the international community has failed to carry out this responsibility.”
Instead of clarifying his plan for Syria, the president only muddled it. He accurately described a minor airstrike, yet his posturing in recent weeks has inflated it into a far more grandiose test of American character. The president’s ultimate pitch—in light of polling that shows opposition to the bombing—was that the soul of our nation depended on this intervention when in fact, it is Syria itself that is at stake.
“Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong,” Obama said on Tuesday. “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.”