As a long ago White House speechwriter (Jimmy Carter) and a devoted student of presidential rhetoric, I have spent the past 24 hours searching for a historical parallel to Barack Obama’s address to the nation on Syria.
We are used to presidential speeches on war (Vietnam, the Gulf War, the 9/11 horrors, Afghanistan, Iraq and the many smaller struggles along the way). Occasionally, we have reveled in presidents announcing breakthroughs for peace, whether it was the end of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis or the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian accords.
But never has a president — down in the polls and stymied in Congress — spoken to the nation in prime time about an unpopular attack that he may not launch against a nation that is not a direct security threat to the United States. Just to add to the degree of rhetorical difficulty, this punitive bombing lacks the support of the United Nations, NATO or even our most loyal ally, Great Britain.
But Tuesday night — after a day of diplomatic flurries that may have averted the immediate crisis — Obama delivered the clearest, the most concise and the most morally compelling foreign-policy address of his presidency.
This observation is not designed as cheerleading for Obama. The president blundered into the crisis with ill-thought-out threats about “red lines” over chemical weapons; he waited too long to go to Congress; and may have only been rescued when the Russians — up to now, Bashar Assad’s enabler — seized on what may have been an accidental comment by Secretary of State John Kerry.
In short, misjudgments by the Obama national security team have made the selling of an air war over Syria even more difficult than it otherwise would have been.
But in many ways, Obama redeemed himself Tuesday night with a powerful invocation of American exceptionalism. “When, with modest effort and risk,” the president said, “we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer in the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes America exceptional.”
Critics have suggested that since Obama has postponed congressional votes that he appeared likely to lose, the speech was a wasted interruption of prime-time programming. That interpretation is simply wrong. Ever since Obama decided to go to Congress for approval of what he regards as the least-bad policy in Syria, we have been treated to a fascinating preview of foreign policy debates in the age of social media.
In prior crises, the president’s meetings with leading figures in Congress have been shrouded in secrecy. Now there are endless live interviews and immediate Twitter feeds summarizing closed sessions. There has, in fact, been more transparency on Syria than on, say, the Obama-John Boehner budget negotiations.
Maybe what we are seeing here is how foreign policy gets made in a post-Iraq environment. Even as the polling turned against Obama, the American people also expressed comfort with the notion that a president has to go to Congress for permission to bomb another country when American lives are not on the line. A recent Pew Research Center/USA Today poll found that 61 percent of Americans believe that Congress — not the president — needs to authorize air strikes over Damascus.
This is as it should be. Even though Obama has repeatedly said that he believes that he has the authority to act on his own, most constitutional experts from both the right and left say that it would be a dangerous over-assertion of presidential power.
Obama acknowledged the historic belittling of Congress’ constitutional powers in Tuesday night’s speech when he talked about “a decade that put more and more war-making power in the hands of the president … while sidelining the people’s representatives from critical decisions about when we use force.” Of course, Obama himself contributed to this dangerous growth of the Imperial Presidency when he declined to go to Congress for authorization to wage the 2011 air campaign over Libya.
But Obama now has turned to Congress — and set an important precedent for the future. As he put it, “I believed it was right, in the absence of a direct or imminent threat to our security, to take the debate to Congress.”
As a result, we are discussing Syria in the open with all the messiness that comes with democracy. Advocates of unbridled presidential power may not like it, but this approach comes a lot closer to what the framers of the Constitution had in mind.
We have also learned in recent days that the American people are rightly skeptical of military operations solely designed to make a point. That’s why the hardest argument for Obama to make is explaining the national security benefits that would flow from an air strike designed “to deter Assad from using chemical weapons” and “to degrade his regime’s ability to use them.”
“Deter” and “degrade” are not normally fighting words. And once again Tuesday night, Obama repeated his promise, “I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria.” In fact, the pledge of no boots on the ground has been made so often by administration officials that it almost seems that we are more likely to invade Denmark than Syria.
Hypotheticals are always tricky, but I wonder how the American people might have reacted if Obama had ever followed through on his initial resolve that Bashar Assad must go. There was a hopeful moment, back in 2011, when Islamic militants represented only a small portion of the uprising against Assad. Even then our aversion to foreign military operations probably would have prevented majority support for actively aiding the Syrian rebels. But that goal would have, at least, given a strategic coherence to what Obama and Company were trying to achieve.
But no American should minimize the barbarism of chemical weapons. In a world where civil wars are raging and terrorism is an ongoing threat, it may seem prissy to talk about the rules of war. But the horrors of a chemical warfare attack are a century old. Wilfred Owen, the British poet who died in the final week of World War I, captured the soldier’s-eye memories of a gas attack:
“Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…”
The truth is that we are by choice and by fate the only nation in the world that can enforce the rules of war and, yes, take steps to prevent atrocities. It was our decision as a people to remain the greatest military power on the face of the earth both after World War II and the American victory in the Cold War. We have become the indispensable nation, and the other countries of the world are free riders when we offer to take the risks and bear the burden of preventing a dictator from gassing his own people.
After Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans are understandably war weary and gimlet-eyed realists about what can happen when the pronouncements of politicians collide with the realities of 21st-century combat. There are no slam-dunks and not everything that starts “limited” ends up “limited.”
But we also can go too far in the other direction as we flee from any course of action that has even the flicker of military risks. Syria is a charnel house, an inferno of despair — and America is the only nation on the face of the earth that can do anything significant to limit the suffering.
After our history of ill-fated wars and hyperbolic claims, we may not choose to take up that burden. We may decide that our problems are too grave at home for another bout of international altruism. We may decide that the evidence of Syrian chemical attacks is too ambiguous, or we may distrust Obama too much to believe that a military operation would change things for the better.
But no American should be blind to the reality that we have made a choice. We have decided to stay on the sidelines and hope for the best. Hope that maybe a United Nations resolution or Russian intervention or Syrian fears can succeed in eliminating Assad’s chemical arsenal.
As Obama declared Tuesday night, “When dictators commit atrocities, they depend on the world to look the other way until those horrifying pictures fade from memory.”
This is the choice facing America this morning: Do we avert our eyes or do we sadly and grimly accept our moral duty?