In Tuesday’s address President Obama didn’t change any minds. And he certainly didn’t offer any answers to the litany of questions from Congressmen, Senators, commentators and everyday Americans that have been posed since the President came out in support of a military strike in Syria.
“A diplomatic resolution is always preferred over military action, but what would that resolution entail, and who will broker it?” Senator Orrin Hatch said in a statement after the speech.
Senator Pat Toomey said that, “the president’s presentation today leaves a lot of unresolved questions. I will continue seeking more answers before deciding whether to support a military intervention in Syria.”
Indeed, President Obama did not make the case that any military strike would have any consequential impact on degrading the chemical weapons the Syrians have now acknowledged exist. And he didn’t make a specific case about what a military strike would achieve beyond speaking in generalities about the arguable serious need to retaliate in kind for the chemical attack that occurred on August 21st.
But it is my strong belief that the President did not intend to make a case for a military strike last night. The last few days have dramatically changed the situation with Secretary of State John Kerry’s off-the-cuff comment in London, Russia’s subsequent diplomatic proposal and Assad’s agreement – at least on the surface – to hand over Syria’s chemical weapons.
It follows that the main message last night was for President Obama to make clear that he does not want to bomb Syria if he can avoid it. And that he is hoping that his own efforts, and those of John Kerry, in Moscow on Thursday will delay, diffuse, and otherwise remove the threat of chemical weapons in Syria.
In this way, President Obama avoided discussing the practical issues involved in finding the chemical weapons, even if there are international inspectors involved. Or, more to the point, how they will get to those sites given that there is a civil war going on.
Disarmament professionals have weighed in on the challenges to finding, securing and eventually destroying Assad’s chemical weapons – and they’re tremendous.
“It’s a smoke screen,” said former U.S. ambassador to Bahrain Adam Ereli of the Russian-backed proposal for international monitors to remove Syria’s chemical weapons. “Nobody knows how many weapons they have, nobody knows where they are. It all depends on the Syrians providing full, accountable transparency.”
Former State Department official Robert Joseph said, “I don’t think for one moment that the Syrians will give up their chemical weapons stocks. They will say they will give it up and they will play the game to undercut any support for a military strike. But they will then start to put conditions on verification and on the foreign presence in Syria. Soon, they will start in with Israel; demanding that Israel’s nuclear weapons be put on the table. All of this will lead nowhere for the United States — exactly where Damascus and Moscow want it to go.”
In light of this, the President’s speech was certainly politically artful. He was able to fundamentally change the dialogue from one that was threatening his presidency;
The process of going to Congress with his resolution, which was most certainly going to be defeated, having it defeated and then having to make the unpalatable decision of either standing down because of Congressional opposition or going forward on his own surely does not represent a option the President would want to take.
It is now clear that a military strike is less likely and that the administration has a “deeply held preference for peaceful solutions”, as the President argued last night.
But it is most certainly not clear what his address added to the conversation. Mark Mardell, the BBC America editor, summed it up well. He said the address was “a speech that was clear but almost entirely lacking in passion and devoid of new arguments.”
So we now find ourselves in the midst of a dangerous waiting game. And although Secretary Kerry was clear that the US wouldn’t “wait forever”, there is no firm deadline on the Assad regime and it has, unfortunately, become an all too familiar story that we have been manipulated by forces like Russia, China and our Middle East foes.
The President is hoping against hope that he can trust a Russian government and a Syrian government who have shown to be untrustworthy at best and murderous at worst. And though I remain hopeful that a diplomatic solution will work and we can avoid a military strike – no matter how limited – with this cast of characters I am doubtful that all will go to plan.