Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Speech aims to keep heat on Syria

By Frida Ghitis, Special to CNN
September 11, 2013 -- Updated 0440 GMT (1240 HKT)
President Barack Obama approaches the podium in the East Room of the White House on Tuesday, September 10, for a speech addressing the nation on the justification for possible military action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The regime is accused of launching a horrific chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus that killed more than 1,400 people. President Barack Obama approaches the podium in the East Room of the White House on Tuesday, September 10, for a speech addressing the nation on the justification for possible military action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The regime is accused of launching a horrific chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus that killed more than 1,400 people.
HIDE CAPTION
Obama makes his case on Syria
Obama makes his case on Syria
Obama makes his case on Syria
Obama makes his case on Syria
Obama makes his case on Syria
Obama makes his case on Syria
Obama makes his case on Syria
Obama makes his case on Syria
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Frida Ghitis: Obama went into speech with Syria situation in new flux; was mildly successful
  • She says he saved talk of diplomatic plan till after he described gassing of kids
  • She says this because clearing Syria's chemical weapons could fall through, as Assad buys time
  • Ghitis: If diplomacy restores "red line," Obama's threat will show threat of consequences matters

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for the Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter: @FridaGColumns.

(CNN) -- In his speech about Syria Tuesday night, President Obama tried to make a graceful turn on a fast-moving platform. He wanted to explain to a skeptical public why they should support his plan for a limited military attack on Syria in response to, the administration says, the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

But his effort was only mildly successful, restating arguments that will be familiar even to those who have not been paying close attention, but also shining a spotlight on the weaknesses of the administration's case.

In the 36 hours leading up to his speech, the circumstances that would determine that case took several confusing turns. Suddenly, with Syria's expressed willingness to give up its chemical weapons, a possible diplomatic avenue opened up that might allow the president to claim victory without launching a single missile. But this plan is far from a sure bet and brings problems of its own. This made the president's job of persuasion even more difficult.

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

The credible threat of force likely opened the tentative diplomatic path, which was opened accidentally when Secretary of State John Kerry made an off-hand suggestion, "a major goof" in the words of a U.S. official, when he said Assad could avoid U.S. military action if he turned over chemical weapons in a week. "It can't be done, obviously," he added, showing this was not a serious proposal.

But the Russians and the Syrians grabbed on to it and suddenly the picture changed dramatically.

Obama still had a speech to make. The remarks were scheduled for the eve of a congressional vote on the president's pla, a vote in which Obama's chances did not look good. He asked Congress to hold off on the vote.

Still, when he spoke to the people, for most of the address it sounded as if no diplomatic proposal had emerged. He waited until the last part of his remarks to start discussing the possible diplomatic breakthrough, which was a smart move. That entire episode shows the chaos that has reigned as the administration tried to make its case for a military response with strict, self-imposed restrictions. (Obama had to at least appear to have some control of the situation.)

He was correct to use this time with the American people instead to try to explain to them (and the rest of the world) why the use of chemical weapons in Syria is a threat to everyone, not just the Syrian people. And he was right to try to bolster support for American intervention. The threat is the only thing that can move a ruthless dictator, because in the end, it is very possible that the plan to dismantle Syrian chemical weapons could fall apart.

Obama: Assad regime is not a threat
An accidental breakthrough?
How will U.N. find Syria's weapons?
Should Americans trust the UN in Syria?

The task is enormously difficult, dangerous and expensive. Experts say it could take years under the best of circumstances to get rid of what is one of the world's biggest stockpiles. Doing it in the middle of a civil war could, in fact, prove impossible.

Obama knows that Russia and Syria, whose paramount goal is the survival of the Assad regime, may be playing for time. Assad has watched Iran game the international community with years of inspections and negotiations without stopping its own program of banned weapons.

The president once again appealed to our shared humanity as well as national security and international stability. He urged Americans to look at the wrenching videos showing rows and rows of dead children wrapped in white shrouds, among the more than 1,400 victims of the Aug. 21 gas attack.

The arguments are valid, but there's much in the administration's logic that is deeply disturbing.

The Syrian conflict is -- we must always remember this -- a moral issue, a matter of profound human suffering. When the president describes the brutality of the Assad regime but then goes on to say the regime can stay in power, its claim to the moral high ground is weak.

When Obama speaks of the devastating images of innocent children dying before their helpless parents, and when he says "When dictators commit atrocities they rely on the world to look the other way," it is disingenuous to say we must not look the other way when chemical weapons are used, but killing by conventional means is really not our problem.

Like everything else about the Syrian conflict, the Russian proposal is far from the ideal option. It legitimizes Assad's rule, it betrays the hopes of the Syrian opposition and it fails to punish the regime for war crimes. It may leave America with all sides in Syria feeling angry and betrayed, as in Egypt. It strengthens Assad and Putin.

That said, if it removes Syria's chemical weapons, it will in fact protect the "red line" Obama had set, showing that chemical weapons use triggers international consequences.

The president and his secretary of state have been making the case that Assad's capabilities must be degraded, that the more moderate among the rebels need Western support, that failure to help them will make the extremists in the opposition attract more support. That remains true.

The diplomatic proposal saved Obama from the immediate threat of failure in Congress and may just keep him out of the conflict. The president's ambivalence about entering has been palpable. He is probably relieved about an opportunity to move in a different direction.

So far, Obama's march to non-war in Syria has been marked by failures of persuasion and of process. Whatever happens next, there is no question that the suffering of the Syrian people will not end any time soon and that Syria will continue to be a daunting problem for President Obama.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT