Obama Steps Back From the Brink

The president's decision is a positive step that should lead to a re-evaluation of U.S. foreign policy.

President Barack Obama (Evan Vucci-Pool/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama (Evan Vucci-Pool/Getty Images)

(The Root) — President Obama’s decision to postpone a U.S. military strike against Syria to pursue further diplomacy may restore the political credibility of an administration that, over the past two weeks, has been on a determined and aggressive course toward war. The rush to war has been disappointing and contrary to Obama’s call for nation building at home during his presidential election campaigns.

The most positive aspect of the Syrian debate has been the president’s willingness to seek congressional authority rather than go it alone. But this decision also represents a tactical retreat because it cedes final approval to the most dysfunctional arm of government. In addition, it has opened up a Pandora’s box regarding the use of American military force, the power of diplomacy and the president’s own political judgment.

A consistent theme of Barack Obama’s tenure as president has been an inability to convey a clear message to the American people. This is surprising, since Obama is well regarded as one of the best presidential orators in our nation’s history. But as we’ve witnessed during the health care debate and at other pivotal moments, the Obama administration and its chief spokesman, the president, have been plagued by an inability to craft a coherent vision for broad-based policy ambitions. When Congress was considering the Affordable Health Care Act, then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi helped stave off disaster. In Syria, Obama faced a crisis that his own administration’s political verbal missteps largely helped create.

On Tuesday evening, Obama gave a nationally televised address from the White House to explain to the nation why he was asking Congress to approve an act of war against Syria. The president began his speech with a brief sketch of the Syrian civil war that has left “over 100,000 people” dead under the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad. Yet these deaths were not reason enough to go to war, he outlined. Instead, Obama marked Aug. 21, 2013 — the day Assad forces deployed chemical weapons that killed more than 1,400 Syrians, including more than 400 children — as a game changer.

Obama argued that allowing the release of chemical weapons to go unpunished would set a dangerous precedent whose boomerang effects could harm American troops and our allies in the region, including “Turkey, Jordan and Israel.” The most dangerous outcome would be an emboldened Iran further developing a nuclear arsenal, a scenario that Israel views as an unacceptable threat to its own security.

“This is not a world we should accept,” explained the president. “This is what’s at stake.” According to Obama, the objective of a military airstrike would “be to deter Assad from using chemical weapons, to degrade his regime’s ability to use them and to make clear to the world” that America would respond forcefully to the use of chemical weapons. “That’s my judgment as commander in chief.”

It’s up to the American people and their political representatives to decide whether or not the president is, in fact, exercising sound judgment. By a large majority, one that stretches beyond U.S. borders, the answer thus far has been a resounding no.