(The Root) — On Tuesday night, President Barack Obama laid out the moral argument for an international, multilateral coalition to respond to the alleged Aug. 21 gas attack by the Syrian government on its own citizens. The speech came in the midst of a rapidly moving diplomatic crisis. Just over a week ago, it seemed that a limited U.S. military strike was all but imminent, but in the past 48 hours the Obama administration has brokered a deal — using unlikely ally Russian President Vladimir Putin as a conduit.
The deal would see Syrian President Bashar al-Assad place his chemical weapons under international control and monitoring, with an agreement that the weapons would eventually be destroyed. Syria would also join the United Nation’s Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and thereby commit to the long-term prohibition of chemical-artillery proliferation. If the terms of the agreement were met and kept, the Obama administration would cease its current plan to pursue military action.
Though the recent moves are not without critics — most claiming that Russia and Syria are disingenuous — this pause reveals President Obama’s deliberate nature, and his commitment to exhausting all possible diplomatic options before wielding American military might. But the developments also serve as a kind of life jacket for an administration drowning in lack of public support. A recent New York Times-CBS poll found that 6 in 10 Americans opposed U.S. airstrikes, with 62 percent of respondents saying that the United States should not take a leading role in trying to solve foreign conflicts. (By comparison, in April 2003, a month after U.S. troops invaded Iraq, 48 percent of Americans favored military action there, while only 43 percent were opposed.)
President Obama echoed these sentiments last night when he quoted letters from concerned citizens saying that “we should not be the world’s policeman.”
But the president was also facing a divided Congress, with progressive members of his own party — and vocal members of the Congressional Black Caucus in particular — expressing reluctance and dismay at the thought of yet another military entanglement in the Middle East. Without a diplomatic solution, such as the one currently on the table, Obama seemed all but destined for a defeat in both houses of Congress on the bill that would authorize strikes. Obama’s critics were undoubtedly poised to use it as a way to attack his credibility and claim that he had weakened the U.S. image abroad by dithering on the very redline he himself had set.
The Root spoke exclusively with Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Meeks has been instrumental in pushing for a diplomatic solution to avoid military intervention and was among the first to call for congressional approval for any U.S. military involvement.
Meeks offers insight into the behind-the-scenes diplomatic process that has now played out on the international stage, and he questions the credibility of his Republican colleagues who attack President Obama on foreign policy decisions while failing to fulfill their own duty to act on the nation’s domestic challenges.
The Root: How do you think President Obama has handled the situation in Syria since he first announced that he intended to take military action? Could he have dealt with this better from the beginning?
Gregory Meeks: I believe the president has displayed extraordinary leadership. It takes courage to tell the truth. It took courage for this president to come to Congress and ask for authority to take military action.
It would have been easier for him to hype up a war like the previous administration and claim that there was an imminent threat. But this president has been measured, thoughtful and completely honest with the American people. And it seems that as soon as President Obama let folks know his intentions — and Congress began to debate the issues — there was a swift move on the part of Vladimir Putin and Assad’s regime to negotiate. I believe our president’s standing on the international stage has been elevated by his handling of this humanitarian crisis, and he’s being rewarded by taking his time and not being quick to wage war.