(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.
I was among the first members of the Foreign Affairs Committee to express my concern about another U.S. military engagement. The nation is war-weary. Our troops and military families have borne the burden of a decadelong war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The American people are increasingly disillusioned with what appears to be unbridled U.S. engagement abroad, and lack of congressional leadership on domestic issues that affect their everyday lives.
I stand with those who seek diplomatic solutions. And though I am deeply disturbed by the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people, any response must be an international response, not a U.S. unilateral action. What's important for people to understand is that Assad's regime violated international norms of conduct. To that end, it must be met with an international condemnation.
TR: As a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, you are privy to classified information. Is there anything you can tell us now that you were unable to speak candidly about before?
GM: What the latest developments show is the extent to which the president never stopped negotiating. After he left for the G-20 summit, he was actively engaged in closed-door diplomatic talks with Russia. That is something most people didn't realize until now, but President Obama had kept our committee briefed throughout, and we were well-informed.
TR: So what now? If the critics are right and Russia and Syria are simply trying to delay, will the president be forced to take military action after all?
GM: The great thing about this new process is that if Russia stalls or if Syria fails in their obligations, the entire international community will see it for what it is. Everything would come to light. And that will only strengthen the resolve of our partners to act in a concerted effort. The United States would not need to go it alone. We could begin to build a strong multilateral coalition.
I can also say that in the unlikely case that military action must be taken, the committee has been briefed on a plan that would stay true to the president's stated goals — to cripple Assad's regime and debilitate their potential use of chemical weapons — but that would not require boots on the ground or burden the U.S. with the responsibility we had in Iraq: to rebuild a nation.
I'm confident because this president has always kept his word. He promised he'd get Osama bin Laden, and he did. He promised limited intervention in Libya, and he did just that. He promised to put al-Qaida on the run, and though it hasn't been easy and there has been push-back because of the drone program, al-Qaida has been weakened significantly.
TR: How do you feel about the Republican response to this crisis and their continued efforts to obstruct the president on both foreign policy and domestic issues?
GM: The Republican Party suffers from an acute diagnosis of hypocrisy. We are all outraged by the murder of children and civilians in Syria, but the GOP must also be concerned about the plight of the American people. They have blocked the president on infrastructure spending, the American Jobs Act and immigration reform and are seeking to undermine health care to the working poor, children and the elderly. They are shooting themselves in the foot — literally blocking jobs and opportunities for the very communities they represent.
I hope the momentum in the House now with respect to Syria will shine a light on what's been happening in our body politic. It's time for us to act on the president's domestic agenda, not just his foreign policy goals. If the GOP fails to do that, they will get what they deserve when people come to the polls in 2014.
Editor's note: The original version of this article stated that Rep. Meeks is the sole African-American member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Committee member Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) is also African American.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington, Arise America and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.