President Obama‘s Tuesday night speech, despite its strong defense of military action against Syria, was an acknowledgment that the president had simply not convinced the American public, Congress or the international community of that argument and would instead pursue a diplomatic resolution to Syria’s use of chemical weapons, even as American officials are wary any formal agreement can be reached.
“I know that after the terrible toll of Iraq and Afghanistan, the idea of any military action, no matter how limited, is not going to be popular. After all, I’ve spent four and a half years working to end wars, not to start them. Our troops are out of Iraq. Our troops are coming home from Afghanistan. And I know Americans want all of us in Washington– especially me — to concentrate on the task of building our nation here at home: putting people back to work, educating our kids, growing our middle class,” he said.
He added, “It’s no wonder, then, that you’re asking hard questions.”
Obama directly raised some of the questions Americans had asked him and then addressed them in his 16-minute East Room speech. But that defense of military action was in some ways irrelevant. The president had already announced earlier in the day he would ask Congress to delay a vote on military strikes in Syria while he would send Secretary of State John Kerry to meet with and hopefully reach an agreement with the Russians on a program to limit and eventually destroy Syria’s chemical weapons.
Obama cast the Syrians’ acknowledgement that they have nuclear weapons and the Russians’ comments that they would agree to help eliminate the Syrian arsenal as a validation of his policy. And it is.
At the same time, Obama comments also illustrated how the shadow of the Iraq War has limited his actions as president. He twice said that America is “not the world’s policeman.” He promised any U.S. military action in Syria would not be nearly as expansive as in Libya, an intervention in which no U.S ground troops ever deployed and no American casualties were sustained. He pledged that the U.S. would not try to “remove another dictator with force.”
“America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong,” he said.
In the speech, Obama pointedly said the U.S. would still consider military strikes if Syria refused to cooperate with an international process to give up its chemical weapons.
But such a strike now seems highly unlikely. Obama has said for days that the American public, through Congress, needed to have its position heard on Syria. Americans have resoundingly rejected the president’s first policy on Syria. He has now wisely adopted a new one.