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 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1818 GMT (0218 HKT)
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1209 GMT (2009 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT