White House transcript:
STATEMENT BY THE PRESIDENT ON SYRIA
1:52 P.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: Good afternoon, everybody. Ten days ago, the world watched in horror as men, women and children were massacred in Syria in the worst chemical weapons attack of the 21st century. Yesterday the United States presented a powerful case that the Syrian government was responsible for this attack on its own people.
Our intelligence shows the Assad regime and its forces preparing to use chemical weapons, launching rockets in the highly populated suburbs of Damascus, and acknowledging that a chemical weapons attack took place. And all of this corroborates what the world can plainly see — hospitals overflowing with victims; terrible images of the dead. All told, well over 1,000 people were murdered. Several hundred of them were children — young girls and boys gassed to death by their own government.
This attack is an assault on human dignity. It also presents a serious danger to our national security. It risks making a mockery of the global prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. It endangers our friends and our partners along Syria’s borders, including Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. It could lead to escalating use of chemical weapons, or their proliferation to terrorist groups who would do our people harm.
In a world with many dangers, this menace must be confronted.
Now, after careful deliberation, I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets. This would not be an open-ended intervention. We would not put boots on the ground. Instead, our action would be designed to be limited in duration and scope. But I’m confident we can hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons, deter this kind of behavior, and degrade their capacity to carry it out.
Our military has positioned assets in the region. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs has informed me that we are prepared to strike whenever we choose. Moreover, the Chairman has indicated to me that our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive; it will be effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now. And I’m prepared to give that order.
But having made my decision as Commander-in-Chief based on what I am convinced is our national security interests, I’m also mindful that I’m the President of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy. I’ve long believed that our power is rooted not just in our military might, but in our example as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. And that’s why I’ve made a second decision: I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress.
Over the last several days, we’ve heard from members of Congress who want their voices to be heard. I absolutely agree. So this morning, I spoke with all four congressional leaders, and they’ve agreed to schedule a debate and then a vote as soon as Congress comes back into session.
In the coming days, my administration stands ready to provide every member with the information they need to understand what happened in Syria and why it has such profound implications for America’s national security. And all of us should be accountable as we move forward, and that can only be accomplished with a vote.
I’m confident in the case our government has made without waiting for U.N. inspectors. I’m comfortable going forward without the approval of a United Nations Security Council that, so far, has been completely paralyzed and unwilling to hold Assad accountable. As a consequence, many people have advised against taking this decision to Congress, and undoubtedly, they were impacted by what we saw happen in the United Kingdom this week when the Parliament of our closest ally failed to pass a resolution with a similar goal, even as the Prime Minister supported taking action.
Yet, while I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective. We should have this debate, because the issues are too big for business as usual. And this morning, John Boehner, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell agreed that this is the right thing to do for our democracy.
A country faces few decisions as grave as using military force, even when that force is limited. I respect the views of those who call for caution, particularly as our country emerges from a time of war that I was elected in part to end. But if we really do want to turn away from taking appropriate action in the face of such an unspeakable outrage, then we just acknowledge the costs of doing nothing.
Here’s my question for every member of Congress and every member of the global community: What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price? What’s the purpose of the international system that we’ve built if a prohibition on the use of chemical weapons that has been agreed to by the governments of 98 percent of the world’s people and approved overwhelmingly by the Congress of the United States is not enforced?
Make no mistake — this has implications beyond chemical warfare. If we won’t enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules? To governments who would choose to build nuclear arms? To terrorist who would spread biological weapons? To armies who carry out genocide?
We cannot raise our children in a world where we will not follow through on the things we say, the accords we sign, the values that define us.
So just as I will take this case to Congress, I will also deliver this message to the world. While the U.N. investigation has some time to report on its findings, we will insist that an atrocity committed with chemical weapons is not simply investigated, it must be confronted.
I don’t expect every nation to agree with the decision we have made. Privately we’ve heard many expressions of support from our friends. But I will ask those who care about the writ of the international community to stand publicly behind our action.
And finally, let me say this to the American people: I know well that we are weary of war. We’ve ended one war in Iraq. We’re ending another in Afghanistan. And the American people have the good sense to know we cannot resolve the underlying conflict in Syria with our military. In that part of the world, there are ancient sectarian differences, and the hopes of the Arab Spring have unleashed forces of change that are going to take many years to resolve. And that’s why we’re not contemplating putting our troops in the middle of someone else’s war.
Instead, we’ll continue to support the Syrian people through our pressure on the Assad regime, our commitment to the opposition, our care for the displaced, and our pursuit of a political resolution that achieves a government that respects the dignity of its people.
But we are the United States of America, and we cannot and must not turn a blind eye to what happened in Damascus. Out of the ashes of world war, we built an international order and enforced the rules that gave it meaning. And we did so because we believe that the rights of individuals to live in peace and dignity depends on the responsibilities of nations. We aren’t perfect, but this nation more than any other has been willing to meet those responsibilities.
So to all members of Congress of both parties, I ask you to take this vote for our national security. I am looking forward to the debate. And in doing so, I ask you, members of Congress, to consider that some things are more important than partisan differences or the politics of the moment.
Ultimately, this is not about who occupies this office at any given time; it’s about who we are as a country. I believe that the people’s representatives must be invested in what America does abroad, and now is the time to show the world that America keeps our commitments. We do what we say. And we lead with the belief that right makes might — not the other way around.
We all know there are no easy options. But I wasn’t elected to avoid hard decisions. And neither were the members of the House and the Senate. I’ve told you what I believe, that our security and our values demand that we cannot turn away from the massacre of countless civilians with chemical weapons. And our democracy is stronger when the President and the people’s representatives stand together.
I’m ready to act in the face of this outrage. Today I’m asking Congress to send a message to the world that we are ready to move forward together as one nation.
Thanks very much.
I support President Obama’s decision to seek congressional authorization to use force in Syria. It’s the right thing to do. It’s also politically smart.
On the other hand I hope Congress votes against using force in Syria. Sometimes war is a necessary evil. This isn’t one of those times.
I am not a pacifist. I served in the army. During my 3-year term there were two major crises, the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian hostage situation. When anything like that happens military personnel and their families pay attention because they will be the first to go if the shit gets real. I would not ask anyone to go to war unless it was absolutely necessary.
There is a valid case to be made for intervening in Syria. They are in the midst of a bloody civil war. It’s a war we helped cause when we encouraged Arab nations to overthrow dictatorships in the Middle East. When some Syrians began to protest against Bashar al-Assad he responded with deadly force and the violence escalated into war.
Make no mistake; Bashar al-Assad is a really bad guy. Originally educated as an Ophthalmologist, he was chosen to succeed by his father, Hafez al-Assad, the brutal dictator who led Syria for 30 years. The rotten apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
The problem with waging war to get rid of malignant assholes is figuring out where to stop. One of the most repressive regimes in the Middle East is our friend and ally Saudi Arabia. The other problem is making sure you are not replacing one malignant asshole with another.
The international politics of what is taking place are complicated. Assad is being supported by Iran and Syria. He is not a Shi’ite but rather an Alawite, which is a small Islamic sect. Even though they are the minority in Syria the Alawis control the government.
Israel wants Assad gone, but they want us to do it. Saudi Arabia and some other Arab nations support the rebels. So does al Qaeda. Talk about strange bedfellows.
Allow me to quote a wise man:
Goals determine strategy. Strategy determines tactics.
The first thing is to agree on a goal.
What is our goal here? Our goal should be related to our justification for going to war. Obama has said our goal is not regime change. This is apparently our goal:
But I’m confident we can hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons, deter this kind of behavior, and degrade their capacity to carry it out.
How do we hold the Assad regime accountable? By blowing up some shit and killing some people? The chances of us getting any of the top leadership with a cruise missile strike is practically nil, given that they are expecting an attack. I’m pretty sure we could kill lots of Syrian civilians without upsetting Assad. We could even kill a bunch of his soldiers and he wouldn’t miss them very much.
That is why deterrence is an iffy proposition too. In order to deter the future use of chemical weapons we have to convince Assad (and any other would-be users of WMDs) that they will be held personally accountable.
Degrading Assad’s ability to wage chemical warfare is a specific yet problematic goal. Chemical weapons have been around for 100 years. Any competent chemist could make them. They can be dispersed in numerous ways.
If we could locate his existing stockpiles we could destroy them, but blowing up a warehouse full of Sarin would contaminate the local area, probably causing “collateral damage”. It is a safe guess that Assad has placed his troops and equipment in civilian areas. Trying to target those military assets could easily result in us killing more civilians with cruise missiles than were killed with chemical weapons.
The problem is that Obama has put the cart before the horse. He has decided on a course of action (tactics) before clarifying our goal. We are thusly limited in our options. Our goal has to be something we can achieve with cruise missiles. Unfortunately that doesn’t leave very much.
As I said earlier, there is a valid case for going to war with Syria. But that case is neither compelling nor even persuasive. We don’t have a clear achievable goal. Obama has limited our actions to those that do not require “boots on the ground”. Preserving Obama’s credibility is not a proper justification for war.
This would be a war of choice, not one in defense of our nation or our citizens. We have no treaty obligations that would require us to take military action at this time. Assad’s Syria is not an immediate threat to any of its neighbors.
Any action we take is fraught with peril. To be fair, there are dangers to inaction as well. There is a strong argument in favor of doing nothing and letting the Syrian army and the rebels exhaust themselves in a long and bloody war of attrition.
I favor the idea of trying to keep the conflict contained until it eventually burns out. That won’t make us any friends but it won’t make us any enemies either. Some will find that option unacceptable on humanitarian grounds.
If we do nothing, people will die. But if we take action people will die. The only difference is who does the dying and who does the killing. I would prefer it if we did neither one.
In 1916 and 1940 the American people were opposed to getting involved in a European war. Eventually public opinion changed and we got involved. Maybe we will eventually get involved in Syria as well.
But not yet.