In a 16-minute address to the nation Tuesday night, President Obama both made the case for military action against Syria in response to its alleged use of chemical weapons and postponed a final decision on such action to give Russia’s diplomatic proposal for the international community to take control of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile time to work. The speech may have let Congress off the hook for the time being, but it left many questions unanswered:
1. Mr. President, what is your strategic goal in Syria? Taking chemical weapons off the board? Punishing Bashar al-Assad for using them? Weakening Assad? Regime change?
2. In the event the balance of power in Syria’s civil war changes, or Assad is defeated, what is the US plan to stabilize Syria without ceding power to radical Islamist militias, including some linked to Al Qaeda?
3. Is the Russian proposal to place Syrian chemical weapons under international control and destroy them an acceptable outcome for the US? Or it only good enough as a step toward regime change?
4. When Russian President Putin put his chemical disarmament idea before you last week at the G-20 meetings, did you take it seriously? Did you instruct Secretary of State John Kerry to pursue the idea with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in their ministerial-level talks? Kerry’s first public mention of the Russian proposal seemed to denigrate the plan as unlikely to work. Were those his instructions? Was his “one week” deadline part of a White House strategy?
5. You have asked for a pause in House and Senate votes to authorize military action in Syria. How long do you envision the pause should last? What outcome could convince you to call off the votes entirely and abandon plans for military action? If the Russian plan can be completed and implemented, what effect will this have on future US policy in Syria? What effect would this have on Russian-American relations?
6. How important has the threat of American use of force been in moving toward even a temporary solution in Syria? How do you assess the cost of the apparent global disapproval of the US threat to use military force? Have the rejection of collaboration by the British Parliament, the refusal of the Arab League to endorse a military strike, and poll results in Western Europe and elsewhere opposing US action weakened the United States?
7. This has been a crisis heightened by global video communication, from the original “amateur” videos that revealed the horrific results of the chemical attacks to the round-the-world, round-the-clock coverage of your threat and the political reactions to it. How should US policy be adjusted for this new “wired world” reality?
8. You said in your speech to the American people that we “know” of actions and discussions among the Syrian military command to prepare chemical weapons for use, and to distribute gas masks to troops to protect them against chemical weapons. German newspapers have quoted German intelligence intercepts that appear in part to contradict your scenario, and point the finger at some Syrian rebels for initiating the chemical attack. What makes you sure your sources are right and the German sources are wrong, and why have you not presented more facts that support your conclusions directly to the American people?
9. Secretary of State Kerry has gotten a lot of bad reviews recently for his rhetoric on Syria. His gratuitous presentation to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee of hypothetical reasons for the possible dispatch of American “boots on the ground” created a huge backlash among those who saw this as an invitation to quagmire, and his negative characterization of the Russian proposal seems to have been swiftly discarded. Does he still have your confidence?
10. In your televised speech, you pledged to the American people that there would be no American “boots on the ground” in Syria, but the language of a draft Senate resolution put a limit forbidding only the use of US armed forces in Syria. Do that limitation and your pledge include the use of CIA personnel or civilian contractors inside Syria?
11. Polls show the US public, by a 3-1 margin, want you to be bound by the results of any future congressional votes. Will you be so bound, or do you feel, as commander-in-chief, that you maintain independence to act, even in the face of popular and legislative disapproval?
12. The former US Mideast diplomatic representative Dennis Ross said recently that if the US doesn’t act on Syria’s chemical weapons, it will convince Israel (and Iran) that we will not act if Iran achieves the ability to make nuclear weapons, and therefore will heighten the possibility of a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran. Do you accept Ross’ arguments? Would unilateral Israeli action against Iran serve American interests? If Israel attacked Iran, would you support such action? Would you join it? Or would you try to prevent it, and if so, how?