Obama Steps Back From the Brink

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.


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.


Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.