Good afternoon. I’m very glad to be back in Washington this afternoon, and among so many friends here at the Center for American Progress. As you know, my topic today is Syria, which presents one of the most critical foreign policy challenges we face.
Syria is important because it lies at the heart of a region critical to U.S. security, a region that is home to friends and partners and one of our closest allies. It is important because the Syrian regime possesses stores of chemical weapons that they have recently used on a large scale and that we cannot allow to fall into terrorists’ hands.
It is important because the Syrian regime is collaborating with Iran, and works in lockstep with thousands of extremist fighters from Hezbollah. And Syria is important because its people – in seeking freedom and dignity — have suffered unimaginable horror these last two and a half years.
But I also recognize how ambivalent Americans are about the situation there.
On the one hand, we Americans share a desire, after two wars, which have taken 6,700 American lives and cost over $1 trillion dollars, to invest taxpayer dollars in American schools and infrastructure. Yet on the other hand, Americans have heard the President’s commitment that this will not be Iraq, this will not be Afghanistan, this will not be Libya. Any use of force will be limited and tailored narrowly to the chemical weapons threat.
On the one hand, we share an abhorrence for the brutal, murderous tactics of Bashar al-Assad. Yet on the other hand, we are worried about the violent extremists who, while opposed to Assad, have themselves carried out atrocities.
On the one hand, we share the deep conviction that chemical weapons are barbaric, that we should never again see children killed in their beds, lost to a world that they never had a chance to try to change. Yet on the other hand, some are wondering why – given the flagrant violation of an international norm – it is incumbent on the United States to lead, since we cannot and should not be the world’s policeman.
Notwithstanding these complexities – notwithstanding the various concerns that we all share – I am here today to explain why the costs of not taking targeted, limited military action are far greater than the risks of going forward in the manner that President Obama has outlined.
Every decision to use military force is an excruciatingly difficult one. It is especially difficult when one filters the Syria crisis through the prism of the past decade.
But let me take a minute to discuss the uniquely monstrous crime that has brought us to this crossroads. What comes to mind for me is one father in al-Ghouta saying goodbye to his two young daughters. His girls had not yet been shrouded, they were still dressed in the pink shorts and leggings of little girls. The father lifted their lifeless bodies, cradled them, and cried out “Wake up…What would I do without you?… How do I stand this pain?” As a parent, I cannot begin to answer his questions. I cannot begin to imagine what it would be like to feel such searing agony.
In arguing for limited military action in the wake of this mass casualty chemical weapons atrocity, we are not arguing that Syrian lives are worth protecting only when they are threatened with poison gas. Rather, we are reaffirming what the world has already made plain in laying down its collective judgment on chemical weapons: there is something different about chemical warfare that raises the stakes for the United States and raises the stakes for the world.
There are many reasons that governments representing 98% of the world’s population – including all 15 members of the UN Security Council – agreed to ban chemical weapons.
These weapons kill in the most gruesome possible way. They kill indiscriminately – they are incapable of distinguishing between a child and a rebel. And they have the potential to kill massively. We believe that this one attack in Damascus claimed more than 1,400 lives, far more than even the worst attacks by conventional means in Syria. And we assess that, although Assad used more chemical weapons on August 21 than he had before, he has barely put a dent in his enormous stockpile, and the international community has clearly not yet put a dent in his willingness to use them.
President Obama, Secretary Kerry, and many members of Congress have spelled out the consequences of failing to meet this threat. If there are more chemical attacks, we will see an inevitable spike in the flow of refugees, on top of the already two million in the region, possibly pushing Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey or Iraq past their breaking points. The fourth largest city in Jordan right now is already the Zaatari refugee camp. Half of Syria’s refugees are children, and we know what can happen to children who grow to adulthood without hope or opportunity in refugee camps; the camps become fertile recruiting grounds for violent extremists.
And beyond Syria, if the violation of a universal agreement to ban chemical weapons is not met with a meaningful response, other regimes will seek to acquire or use them to protect or extend their power, increasing risks to American troops in the future. We cannot afford to signal to North Korea and Iran that the international community is unwilling to act to prevent proliferation or willing to tolerate the use of weapons of mass destruction. If there are no consequences now for breaking the prohibition on chemical weapons, it will be harder to muster an international consensus to ensure that Hizballah and other terrorist groups are prevented from acquiring or using these weapons themselves.
People will draw lessons if the world proves unwilling to enforce the norms against chemical weapons use that we have worked so diligently to construct.
And Israel’s security is threatened by instability in the region and its security is enhanced when those who would do it harm know that the United States stands behind its word. That’s why we’ve seen Israel’s supporters in the United States come out in support of the President’s proposed course of action.
These are just some of the risks of inaction. But many Americans and some Members in Congress have legitimately focused as well on the risks of action. They have posed a series of important questions, and I would like to use the remainder of my remarks to address a few of them.
Some have asked, given our collective war-weariness, why we cannot use non-military tools to achieve the same end. My answer to this question is: we have exhausted the alternatives. For more than a year, we have pursued countless policy tools short of military force to try to dissuade Assad from using chemical weapons. We have engaged the Syrians directly and, at our request, the Russians, the UN, and the Iranians sent similar messages.
But when SCUDS and other horrific weapons didn’t quell the Syrian rebellion, Assad began using chemical weapons on a small-scale multiple times, as the United States concluded in June.
Faced with this growing evidence of several small-scale subsequent attacks, we redoubled our efforts. We backed the UN diplomatic process and tried to get the parties back to the negotiating table, recognizing that a political solution is the best way to reduce all forms of threat. We provided more humanitarian assistance. And on chemical weapons specifically, we assembled and went public with compelling and frightening evidence of the regime’s use.
We worked with the UN to create a group of inspectors and then worked for more than six months to get them access to the country, on the logic that perhaps the presence of an investigative team in the country might deter future attacks. Or if not, at a minimum, we thought perhaps a shared evidentiary base could convince Russia or Iran – itself a victim of Saddam Hussein’s monstrous chemical weapons attacks in 1987-1988 – to cast loose a regime that was gassing its people. We expanded and accelerated our assistance to the Syrian opposition. We supported the UN Commission of Inquiry.
Russia, often backed by China, has blocked every relevant action in the Security Council, even mild condemnations of the use of chemical weapons that did not ascribe blame to any particular party. In Assad’s cost-benefit calculus, he must have weighed the military benefits of using this hideous weapon against the recognition that he could get away with it because Russia would have Syria’s back in the Security Council. And on August 21 he staged the largest chemical weapons attack in a quarter century while UN inspectors were sitting on the other side of town.
It is only after the United States pursued these non-military options without achieving the desired result of deterring chemical weapons use, that the President concluded that a limited military strike is the only way to prevent Assad from employing chemical weapons as if they are a conventional weapon of war.
I am here today because I believe – and President Obama believes – that those of us who are arguing for the limited use of force must justify our position, accepting responsibility for the risks and potential consequences of action. When one considers pursuing non-military measures, we must similarly address the risks inherent in those approaches.
At this stage, the diplomatic process is stalled because one side has just been gassed on a massive scale and the other side so far feels it has gotten away with it. What would words – in the form of belated diplomatic condemnation – achieve? What could the International Criminal Court really do, even if Russia or China were to allow a referral? Would a drawn out legal process really affect the immediate calculus of Assad and those who ordered chemical weapons attacks? We could try again to pursue economic sanctions, but – even if Russia budged – would more asset freezes, travel bans, and banking restrictions convince Assad not to use chemical weapons again when he has a pipeline to the resources of Hezbollah and Iran? Does anybody really believe that deploying the same approaches we have tried for the last year will suddenly be effective?
Of course, this isn’t the only legitimate question being raised. People are asking, shouldn’t the United States work through the Security Council on an issue that so clearly implicates international peace and security? The answer is, of course, yes. We would if we could, but we can’t. Every day for the two and a half years of the Syrian conflict, we have shown how seriously we take the UN Security Council and our obligations to enforce international peace and security.
Since 2011, Russia and China have vetoed three separate Security Council resolutions condemning the Syrian regime’s violence or promoting a political solution to the conflict. This year alone, Russia has blocked at least three statements expressing humanitarian concern and calling for humanitarian access to besieged cities in Syria. And in the past two months, Russia has blocked two resolutions condemning the generic use of chemical weapons and two press statements expressing concern about their use. We believe that more than 1,400 people were killed in Damascus on August 21, and the Security Council could not even agree to put out a press statement expressing its disapproval.
The international system that was founded in 1945 —a system we designed specifically to respond to the kinds of horrors we saw play out in World War II—has not lived up to its promise or its responsibilities in the case of Syria. And it is naive to think that Russia is on the verge of changing its position and allowing the UN Security Council to assume its rightful role as the enforcer of international peace and security. In short, the Security Council the world needs to deal with this urgent crisis is not the Security Council we have.
Many Americans recognize that, while we were right to seek to work through the Security Council, it is clear that Syria is one of those occasions – like Kosovo – when the Council is so paralyzed that countries have to act outside it if they are to prevent the flouting of international laws and norms. But these same people still reasonably ask: Beyond the Security Council, what support does the United States have in holding Assad accountable?
While the United States possesses unique capabilities to carry out a swift, limited, and proportionate strike so as to prevent and deter future use of chemical weapons, countries around the world have joined us in supporting decisive action.
The Arab League has urged international action against Syria in response to what it called the “ugly crime” of using chemical weapons. The NATO Secretary General has said that the Syrian regime “is responsible” and that “we need a firm international response to avoid that chemical attacks take place in the future.” The Organization of Islamic Cooperation blamed the Syrian government for the chemical attacks and called for “decisive action.” And eleven countries at the G-20 Summit today called for a “strong international response” and noted their “support for efforts undertaken by the United States and other countries to reinforce the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.”
As I have found over the last week at the UN, the more that countries around the world are confronted with the hard facts of what occurred on August 21, the more they recognize that the steep price of impunity for Assad could extend well beyond Syria. The President’s decision to seek congressional support has also given the United States time to mobilize additional international support, and there is no question that authorization by our Congress will help strengthen our case.
One of the most common concerns we have heard centers less on the how or when of intervention, but on the what. Some Americans are asking, how can we be sure that the United States will avoid a slippery slope that would lead to full-scale war with Syria? On the other hand, others are asking, if the U.S. action is limited, how will that have the desired effect on Assad?
These are good and important questions. The United States cannot police every crisis any more than we can shelter every refugee. The President has made it clear: he is responding militarily to a mass casualty chemical weapons incident; any military action will be a meaningful, time-limited response to deter the regime from using chemical weapons again – and to degrade its ability to do so. From the start of the Syrian conflict, the President has consistently demonstrated that he will not put American boots on the ground to fight another war in the Middle East. The draft resolution before Congress makes this clear.
President Obama is seeking your support to employ limited military means to achieve very specific ends – to degrade Assad’s capacity to use these weapons again, and deter others in the world who might follow suit – and the United States has the discipline as a country to maintain these limits.
Limited military action will not be designed to solve the entire Syria problem — not even the most ardent proponents of military intervention in Syria believe that peace can be achieved through military means. But this action should have the effect of reinforcing our larger strategy for addressing the crisis in Syria.
By degrading Assad’s capacity to deliver chemical weapons, we will also degrade his ability to strike at civilian populations by conventional means. In addition this operation, combined with ongoing efforts to upgrade the military capabilities of the moderate opposition, should reduce the regime’s faith that they can kill their way to victory. In this instance, the use of limited military force can strengthen our diplomacy – and energize the efforts by the UN and others to achieve a negotiated settlement to the underlying conflict.
Let me add a few thoughts in closing. I know I have not addressed every doubt that exists in this room, in this town, in this country, or in the broader international community. This is the right debate for us to have. We should be asking the hard questions and making deliberate choices before embarking upon action. There is no risk-free door #2 that we can choose in this case.
Public skepticism of foreign interventions is an extremely healthy phenomenon in our democracy, a check against the excessive use of military power.
The American people elect leaders to exercise judgment, and there have been times in our history when presidents have taken hard decisions to use force that were not initially popular, because they believed our interests demanded it. From 1992, when the Bosnian genocide started, till 1995, when President Clinton launched the air strikes that stopped the war, public opinion consistently opposed military action there. Even after we succeeded in ending the war and negotiating a peace settlement, the House of Representatives, reflecting public opinion, voted against deploying American troops to a NATO peacekeeping mission.
There is no question that this deployment of American power saved lives and returned stability to a critical region of the world and a critical region for the United States.
We all have a choice to make. Whether we are Republicans or Democrats, whether we have supported past military interventions or opposed them, whether we have argued for or against such action in Syria prior to this point, we should agree that there are lines in this world that cannot be crossed, and limits on murderous behavior, especially with weapons of mass destruction, that must be enforced.
If we cannot summon the courage to act when the evidence is clear, and when the action being contemplated is limited, then our ability to lead in the world is compromised. The alternative is to give a green light to outrages that will threaten our security and haunt our conscience, outrages that will eventually compel us to use force anyway down the line, at far greater risk and cost to our own citizens. If the last century teaches us anything, it is this. Thank you so much.
- Cross posted from U.S. Mission to the UN