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)

The most striking parts of Obama’s speech acknowledged the skepticism of the American people, who he described as rightfully war-weary after more than a decade of conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq. Obama referred to “hard questions” asked by ordinary citizens, ranging from the isolationist — “Why not leave this to other countries?” — to the cautious: “Why should we get involved at all in a place that’s so complicated?”

Obama seemed to have his own doubts, too: “So even though I possessed the authority to order military strikes, I believed it was right, in the absence of a direct or imminent threat to our security, to take this debate to Congress.”

Chief among the mounting challenges that Obama faces in Syria is the gnawing belief that not all avenues of diplomacy have, in fact, been exhausted. The president conceded as much after he responded positively to a Russian-backed plan for Syria to give up its chemical weapons. The new diplomatic route has, as Ezra Klein points out, placed the president in the awkward position of having to seek authorization from a skeptical Congress and public for a military strike that is providing leverage for the diplomatic solution that everyone seeks.

“I have therefore asked the leaders of Congress to postpone a vote to authorize the use of force while we pursue this diplomatic path,” Obama conceded. On the whole this is good news, and for the moment saves the president the potential embarrassment of losing a congressional vote that many pundits have argued would fatally undermine his presidency.

But the debate over Syria begs a larger re-evaluation of America’s role in the world and the Obama administration’s foreign policy. The effort to rid the Assad regime of chemical weapons is a laudable goal. But the message that 1,400 deaths inflicted by sarin gas trumps 100,000 Syrians killed through conventional warfare is a troubling one. In the opening and closing of his speech, Obama made a moral argument by citing the clearly outrageous example of little children being gassed. However, in between he outlined a case for American intervention based more on geopolitical strategy than on any kind of moral outrage.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the debate over Syria has been the assertion that Obama’s credibility as president rests on Congress’ approval of the bombing of a sovereign nation. The authority of an American president should never pivot solely on the ability to use the world’s greatest military power. Fortunately, perhaps for one of the few times in our recent history, the people have spoken loudly enough and with a clarity of purpose that has compelled Obama and other political leaders to re-evaluate, or at least pause, before marching toward war in the name of peace.

President Obama’s behavior during this rush to war has been disappointing. To his great credit, as a state senator from Illinois he opposed the Iraq War, and as a presidential candidate he touted these credentials all the way to the White House. His repeated claims now, having been elected to “end wars and not start them,” ring hollow in regard to Syria. The former Chicago community organizer, the one who protested against South African apartheid and confronted public officials who did too little for the poor, would be hard-pressed to recognize the politician he has now become.

Peniel E. Joseph is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. Follow him on Twitter. The center will convene a National Dialogue on Race Day on Sept. 12, 2013, and invites all to join in the conversation. Follow the center on Twitter.