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Obama: ‘I believe we should act’ in Syria — if diplomacy fails

Updated: September 13, 2013 4:39PM



On the eve of the 12th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks on the United States, President Barack Obama stood before a war-weary nation Tuesday night making the case for a military strike against Syria — if diplomacy fails.

In a 15-minute speech from the White House, Obama argued the need to take action against a leader whom Obama painted as a dangerous dictator whose atrocities would only worsen if gone unpunished.

At the same time, Obama announced he would ask Congress to postpone a vote on the use of force in Syria until diplomatic negotiations had run their course. Obama made the call knowing that a series of polls in recent days showed sharp American disapproval of military action in Syria. Obama sought to answer the most pressing criticisms and questions by the public, including addressing the notion of why the United States should insert itself into this battle – and why now.

“America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong,” Obama acknowledged. “But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth.”

Obama has said he was prepared to launch a targeted military strike on Syria as a result of the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in the country that left more than 1,400 people dead, including more than 400 children. After failing to get the backing of either the United Nations or our biggest ally, England, Obama said he would pursue Congressional approval.

Obama’s remarks did little to persuade U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), who told the Sun-Times Tuesday night that the president took off the table the two most compelling reasons to rally around a strike: ridding Syria of President Bashar al-Assad and gaining control of Syria’s weapons.

“The safest person in the country is now Bashar Assad,” Roskam said. “He is the person who is not going to be the victim of U.S. military action.”

Another Illinois Republican had a different take.

“I think in the first half of his speech he made the case for military action. I think it was a case he should have made two weeks ago. He let events get ahead of him,” said U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) “Now we have to rely on the notoriously unreliable Russians … I hope we back this up with credible force.”

Since Monday, the Obama administration has engaged in a media campaign that included National Security Adviser Susan Rice as well as a half dozen network news interviews by the president that promised a controlled Syrian strike that would not involve American “boots on the ground.”

The president repeated that Tuesday night as he ticked off his answers to a series of questions and concerns he said Americans had, including being “sick and tired of war.”

“I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria,” Obama said.

Still the night was also a solemn reminder that our nation has been engaged in some form of military action for the last dozen years. Obama campaigned heavily for the presidency in 2008 — particularly during the primary campaign against Hillary Clinton — largely trumpeting his opposition to a war in Iraq.

On Tuesday, Obama sought to suggest he had not forgotten those promises, saying “I’ve spent four and a half years working to end wars, not to start them.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is headed to Geneva this week to negotiate with Syrian ally Russia the turning over of Syria’s cache of chemical weapons for U.N. inspection. Obama took credit for the development, saying that it came to pass only because Assad believed there was a credible threat of a strike by the United States.

However, comments by Kerry on Monday left many in the nation scratching their heads. At one point, Kerry characterized potential military action against Syria as “unbelievably small.” In another response, Kerry, answering a reporter’s question about whether military action could be averted, said it could if Syria gave up all of its chemical weapons. He dismissed this as an unlikely scenario. Later in the day, however, it emerged as a possible alternative to a strike.

“I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan. I will not pursue a prolonged air campaign like Libya or Kosovo,” Obama said on Tuesday. “This would be a targeted strike to achieve a clear objective: deterring the use of chemical weapons, and degrading Assad’s capabilities.”

Roskam was unconvinced.

“It doesn’t seem to me, doesn’t appear to me that the administration is driving this or the administration is clear about what the goals are,” the west suburban Republican said, regarding talks with Russia.

“The president was essentially saying: ‘This is a response.’ He wasn’t able to say it is a response that could achieve a goal in our national interest. We’re still left asking ‘to what end?’”

nkorecki@suntimes.com

@natashakorecki



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