War Drums: The Syria Speech Obama Could Give … But Probably Won’t

President Obama works on his remarks in the Oval Office before delivering a recent statement. (White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Editor’s Note: Several hours after this post went live, “Probably Won’t” became “Basically Did Just That.” President Obama, speaking from the White House Rose Garden, said he is ready to give the order to launch military strikes on Syria. But first, he will seek congressional approval. Congress is slated to return to Washington on Sept. 9.

A growing number of U.S. lawmakers, as well as 8 in 10 Americans polled by NBC News, want President Barack Obama to seek congressional authorization before launching military strikes on Syria. One week after sending Navy ships into position for Tomahawk missile strikes on Syria, the White House on Friday was still busily selling its rationale for war. Obama said earlier this week that deciding whether or not to go to war is the biggest decision any president faces. So he shouldn’t ignore the concerns of a war-weary nation, nor brush aside lawmakers’ public worries — even ones rooted in politics. Obama could, in a way, call Congress’ bluff. He could urge them to return to Washington early next week to debate and vote on a Syria use-of-force resolution. He could start by addressing the nation. It might go a little something like this:

** The Oval Office – Saturday, August 31, 2013 – 9 p.m. EST **

My fellow Americans, good evening. As Americans across our great nation gather to celebrate Labor Day, we have a rare moment take a break from our busy schedules to pause and celebrate the importance of hard work and economic independence. Americans will gather for barbeques, softball games, and family and church Labor Day festivities. Yet, as the world’s leading example of a free society built on hard work and freedom, Americans should pause to remember those across the world who aren’t as fortunate. This week, my administration has been contemplating how to respond to an immoral and savage chemical weapons attack in one such place: Syria. Even before its three-year-old civil war, ordinary Syrians could only look toward the United States in awe, for there is little — if any — version of the “American Dream” in Bashar al-Assad’s Syria.

On August 21, over 1,000 Syrians — including more than 400 innocent young children — died outside Syria’s capital, Damascus. My administration, based on a significant amount of information gathered and analyzed by the top-notch professionals of the U.S. intelligence community, has determined Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ordered a deadly chemical weapons attack in 12 separate neighborhoods with no regard for the safety of innocent Syrians, including children, women and the elderly. The attack took place outside of Damascus, once and forever an important city for a great religion. These atrocities, we have determined, were carried out under orders from Assad’s regime. These atrocities violate the teachings of Islam, and those of all the world’s leading religions. But they also violate important international norms against chemical weapons that have stood since the aftermath of World War One.

Much has been made about comments I made last August about Assad’s use of chemical weapons constituting a “red line” that, if crossed, could warrant my ordering of a U.S. military response. My administration, after carefully examining all the information we have gathered and all the options our Department of Defense has provided, determined that a military response is warranted to send a message to Assad that his barbaric tactics must stop. The leaders of some of America’s closest and most important allies agree with our finding that Assad’s regime used chemical weapons, and that a signal must be sent. U.S. interests and our allies in the region are stake. The United States should never shy away from upholding the very values and standards that define our great country, and to which we challenge the rest of the world to match. My political opponents — and even some members of my own party — are questioning the logic of issuing such a declaration. They are worried that a U.S. military mission — even one limited to cruise missile strikes against Assad’s chemical weapons capabilities — could lead to another protracted American ground war in a Middle Eastern nation. They are worried about unintended consequences in a region that has proven so challenging for America over the last 12 years. Nearly 200 lawmakers want me to delay any military action in Syria until both chambers of Congress have a chance to debate and vote on even a limited mission.

The American people likely view my resolve to enforce my “red line” warning and the concerns raised in recent days by some in Congress as another example of Washington dysfunction. I view it in a different way: Our differences, and what should happen next, reflect the very best about America and our political system. Our wise Founding Fathers knew what they were doing when they set up our federal government. They understood the need for a separation of powers among multiple branches of a federal government. And they knew, at times, as differing parties debated the nation’s most crucial decisions, things would get messy and contentious and divisive. That’s why, despite my legal counsel’s advice that I, as commander in chief, have the legal authority to launch a military strike without Congressional authorization, I have decided that Congress should have an opportunity to weigh in.

To be clear, America has not formally declared war on another nation since World War Two. When I launched a military mission to oust then-Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi two years ago, I did not ask Congress to approve it. In doing so, I followed a precedent set by Democratic and Republican presidents alike. But Syria is not Libya. The circumstances are different, and in many ways, more complex. The ramifications for the interests of the United States and our allies are greater. And the calls for a congressional debate about limited military strikes are more bipartisan. Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, one of the Senate’s most thoughtful lawmakers on national security issues said this week that I should “call everybody back and let Congress authorize this activity.” Earlier this evening, I called my friend Sen. Corker. And after hearing him out, I informed him that I will take his advice — for now. I am announcing this evening that I will not order any military strikes on Syrian regime targets until Congress has had a chance to debate and vote on a resolution authorizing me to do so.

But, and let me be clear, international norms against the use of chemical weapons and America’s values must be upheld in some manner. Bashar al-Assad must be held accountable for his savage acts of murder on innocent men, women and children. I welcome a passionate debate in both chambers of Congress, and will carefully consider the results of the votes in both the House and the Senate. Deliberating key issues in a way that reflects the will of average citizens is what makes America the world’s shining light on the hill of freedom. But, given the threat that Assad may again unleash his weapons of mass death, Congress must return to Washington as soon as possible. This situation cannot wait for lawmakers’ planned Sept. 9 return. Congress should return to Washington on Tuesday, the day after Labor Day, and begin debate on a resolution authorizing limited military action in Syria. Many voices will have to be heard. This will take time. But, for the sake of innocent Syrians and the cause of freedom, it cannot go on indefinitely. I expect Congress to hold final votes on a use-of-force resolution by Thursday evening.

To members of Congress, I close with a simple message: You have important work to do. The world is watching. The Assad regime is watching. Other rogue regimes who brutalize their citizens and ignore the will of the international community are watching. Thank you all. May God grant us wisdom in this complicated time, and may God continue to bless the United States of America.

Sure, waiting another week would give Assad and his military commanders time to move parts of the regime’s chemical weapons arsenal. But, as Obama himself has made clear, any U.S. strikes would be more about message-sending and less about crippling Assad’s regime or his military. A stern message could be sent in a few days, after Congress has done its work. For better or worse, presidents for decades have been expanding the power of the Executive Branch. So even if both chambers vote down a Syria resolution, Obama — who will never again run for office — still could launch limited strikes. And, more broadly, Obama might finally make a few allies on Capitol Hill by taking their advice. He might finally earn the respect of some GOP members. That would benefit the nation as tough fiscal fights are ahead in Washington this fall. Obama could give a speech like this. But, given the current political climate, it’s unlikely he’ll be requesting airtime for anything but a speech informing the world that he’s already launched the Tomahawks — despite the concerns of Congress and those who twice put him in the land’s highest office.

John T. Bennett

John T. Bennett

Bennett is the Editor of Defense News' CongressWatch channel. He has a Masters degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University.
John T. Bennett