Jacob Heilbrunn

Obama's Divided Syria Speech

Does President Obama want to go to war in Syria for Sasha and Malia? In his address last night, Obama repeatedly invoked the gassing of hundreds of children in Syria to make the case for military action. He indicated that countenancing the Syrian regime’s deployment of chemical weapons on August 21 would mean that Americans eventually might become the target of such attacks. 

And he made the moral case for action. Obama was, in effect, admonishing Americans for their reluctance to intervene in the cauldron of religious and ethnic animosities that has transformed Syria from a repressive dictatorship into a country with violent factions trying to turn it back into a unified and repressive dictatorship. "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?" Obama said. At the same time, he acknowledged that America cannot serve as the "world's policeman." Just a neighborhood watch committee?

And so Obama's speech had a distinctly schizophrenic quality. The first half or so sounded like a call to arms. The other half not so much. Instead, it grudgingly accepted that maybe diplomacy is the way to go. Whether Obama wants to admit it or not, Russian president Vladimir Putin has offered him an out from political self-destruction. Obama may owe the rest of his presidency, which was headed for a cataclysmic defeat, not in Syria, where America could basically have bombed with impunity, but in Congress, where the president keeps succeeding in adding to his roster of adversaries, to Putin. This time it wasn't simply many Republican conservatives who were about to repudiate Obama; it was also the antiwar Democratic base that he emerged from when he originally denounced the Iraq war as a “dumb idea.”

What Obama’s speech exemplified, then, are the contradictions in his own administration over the past few weeks when it comes to Syria. Secretary John Kerry has been freelancing, coming up with the idea of Syria handing over its chemical weapons cache, which Moscow seized upon, in an off-hand remark. Obama, too, has been improvising—he blindsided Kerry and Defense Secretary Hagel in coming up with the notion of going to Congress for a Syria resolution. Obama would do well to think about a reset of his own foreign policy team.

If Obama manages to get a deal, he could pull off a foreign and domestic success. But he would have to seek a far more cooperative relationship with Russia, which holds the key to the Syria conflict. He can’t, in other words, treat Russia as he does Congress—like a pesky nuisance that he condescends to speak to once in awhile. A new era of détente, based on common interests in stability abroad, needs to be inaugurated. Russia has no more interest in Islamic radicals obtaining chemical weapons than does America.

No doubt a fresh diplomatic initiative will attract the ire of the neoconservative wing of the GOP and inevitably expose Obama to charges of appeasement. Big deal. As opinion polls indicate, Obama’s time-out is what the public, weary of incessant wars in the Middle East, wants. International norms don’t have a domestic constituency. Americans are not willing to go to war for the Fletcher School.

In indicating that he will maintain America’s current military posture in the region, Obama made it clear that the threat of force will remain. It’s a credible one. Congress clearly has little appetite for voting, and a vote will probably never take place. America should bring the world together to condemn and penalize Syria for this action,” Oregon Sen. Jeff Markley (D-OR) declared. “Such an effort, however, is best pursued through international negotiation and diplomacy.” Senator Bob Corker, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, appears to agree: “Our best course of action is to pause.”

If diplomacy is ineffective, then Obama will likely order a military strike and call it a day. To a degree that his detractors and supporters may both have underestimated, he is emotionally committed to the idea of the nonproliferation and abolition of weapons of mass destruction. It was underscored when Obama said, “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.”

But Obama’s commitment to a red-line in Syria almost redlined him. He knows that if diplomacy does fail, it could result in the failure of his own presidency.