What Obama Should Say About Syria

This article is more than 7 years old.

President Barack Obama is expected to address the American people from the White House on Tuesday evening. The president has a special opportunity to communicate to the American public, and to the world, a broader understanding of the values that inform American leadership. 

Although we do not expect to hear the following words on Tuesday evening, we believe they represent a path out of conflict while still embodying courage, integrity and true leadership:

Good evening my fellow Americans. I speak with you on the eve of our national commemoration of the lives lost on September 11, 2001 with great reverence for those departed souls. I also speak with necessary candor as our nation and the world reckons with a new source of terror.

On August 21st, more than 1,400 innocent Syrians lost their lives due to a chemical weapons attack — 426 of them were children.

As you well know, nearly a year ago, I declared a red line would be crossed should the Assad regime use chemical weapons in its civil war. After concluding that the Assad regime was responsible for the chemical weapons attack in Syria, I affirmed my intention to pursue military strikes.

Following exhaustive counsel and deliberation, I have now come to a different conclusion.  I have decided that a military course of action at this time does not serve the best interests of the United States, the Syrian people, or the world.

Two considerations — wholly unrelated to a pending congressional vote — lead me to this conclusion:

First, I am now convinced that military action will simply be unable to advance our interests in the region or the world. I see no prospect that limited strikes would deter the Syrians — or the Iranians — from further use of chemical weapons. To the contrary, in the short term U.S. strikes would embolden Assad and his regime to fight back. Short term strikes will simply result in more violence, more war, and more bloodshed.

Secondly, I have come to believe that there are costly and unpredictable second order risks of striking Syria. Military action could lead to escalation with untold consequences for our allies in the region, engulfing us in a wider conflict spiral with profound implications for global security. At the very least, even with our advanced intelligence and the most precise arsenal of targeted weapons, American military action would cost innocent Syrian lives. In war, unintended innocents are always victims, no matter how careful the military operation.

Additionally, while I am confident we could carry out our attacks with minimal risk to U.S. lives, any military response — limited or otherwise — would put American military personnel in harm’s way.

Let me be clear: If there were no other options available to us as a nation, our course would be straightforward. But this is not the case. As my own Secretary of State has repeatedly said this past week, a negotiated political resolution is the only way this crisis will end.

By coming before you with this decision tonight, I am fully aware of the consequences for my presidency and for the nation. People will question my resolve and credibility as well as the credibility of the United States. I will be decried as weak, easily swayed, and a flip-flopper. I expect to be lambasted on all sides.

So be it.

My job as your president is to make the best possible decisions I can in light of the information before me. My job is decidedly not to close my eyes and ears, and remain stubborn so that I am declared “strong” or sufficiently “presidential.”

Our best leaders throughout history have been the ones who knew when to remain firm and knew when, in all humility, to admit an error and take a different tack.

I am persuaded that more efforts in the direction of negotiation and diplomacy could succeed. Before ordering military action, I will exhaust these efforts and continue to work constructively with others — including Russia, China, and others in the international community — to end this tragic conflict.

In the meantime, we will keep our military fully deployed and at the ready should the situation on the ground suggest that a military approach is the best of the options available to us.

The American people elected me to the presidency with war weariness weighing heavily on their hearts. History tells us, that we are the architects of our own fate — that we need not be carried along haplessly by the overwhelming moment of the day. Rather, when we see a path to achieve a better outcome, we must have the courage and integrity to follow that path.

As we move forward, I remain answerable to you as your leader and will continue to listen and make decisions based on the best information available. I ask for your prayers and continued support as we pursue this path toward peace.

Thank you, God bless you and may God bless these United States.

This program aired on September 10, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.