In a high-stakes address to the nation Tuesday night, President Barack Obama cautiously embraced a diplomatic effort to rid the Syrian regime of its chemical weapons, but urged the nation to stand with him in his resolve to launch a military strike if that effort fails.
The president said he asked Congress to hold off on voting to authorize strikes to give the diplomatic effort a chance to work, but indicated he was willing to act if it does not. Though it’s an open question whether he was able to sway public sentiment on the issue of a strike, many members of Congress did not appear to be moved by his pitch that the Syrian chemical attacks were not just an affront to humanity but could also lead to future security risks to the United States.
“Our ideals and principles as well as our national security are at stake in Syria, along with our leadership of a world where we seek to ensure that the world’s worst weapons will never be used,” he said.
“America is not the world’s policeman,” he said, noting concerns from Americans to that effect. “But when, with modest effort and risk, 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.”
Obama told the nation that there was no doubt the Syrian regime gruesomely massacred its own citizens, and asked the country to view the hundreds of videos and pictures of the dead and dying.
“When dictators commit atrocities, they depend upon the world to look the other way,” Obama said. “The question now is what is the United States of America and the international community are going to do about it.”
Failure to act would embolden countries like Iran to develop other weapons of mass destruction, Obama said, and eventually make it easier for terrorists to acquire chemical weapons as well.
“This is not a world we should accept,” he said.
The president also sought repeatedly to appeal to a nation where public opinion is overwhelmingly against a new war — saying that he would insist that the strikes be targeted but effective.
“I will not put boots on the ground in Syria,” he said. “I will not pursue a prolonged air campaign like Libya or Kosovo.” And he said that Syria was no match for the United States military if it tried to retaliate, and Bashar al-Assad knows that.
“Neither Assad nor his allies have any interest in escalation that would lead to his demise,” Obama said.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.