Brookings Scholars Respond to President Obama’s Speech on Syria

President Obama delivered a prime-time speech on Syria Tuesday night, stating that “I determined that it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike.”

Suzanne Maloney, senior fellow and author of the new Brookings Essay on the Iranian presidential election and prospects for renewed nuclear diplomacy, addresses the link the president made from failing to act against Syria’s chemical arsenal to emboldening Iran’s nuclear ambitions:

Washington’s linking of Iran and Syria should not come as any real surprise; it’s superficially compelling and politically appealing. It also happens to be wrong.

Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, says that “Obama’s pursuit of a diplomatic solution is the path of least resistance right now, both at home and abroad.”

He has made the issue all about chemical weapons and not about the removal of Assad — a point the Syrian dictator would have clearly noted in listening to Obama’s presidential address on Tuesday night. But all the words and diplomatic initiatives cannot hide one basic truth: The Syrian crisis will not go away — in fact, it will continue to haunt Obama’s presidency for the rest of its days.

Shibley Telhami, a Brookings nonresident senior fellow and Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, called the speech “the address of a deeply conflicted man.”

While the president’s address focused mostly on preventing Syria from using chemical weapons and keeping those weapons from falling into the wrong hands, it is clear that the proposed military action does not promise either. Its presumed effectiveness, moreover, rests on the assumption that the mere threat of escalation will deter Assad in the future. And yet the president promised only limited action, and all but promised not to act without the consent of Congress.

Senior Fellow Ken Pollack, author of the just-released book Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy, spoke to the Christian Science Monitor about the prospects for diplomacy:

Obama left out “two huge pieces” by failing to define what criteria he will use to judge the Russian initiative and how much time he intends to give diplomacy, says Kenneth Pollack of Washington’s Brookings Institution.

The public, Congress, and the military need to know “how long he intends to give [diplomacy] to succeed or fail so that we can know whether we are going to use force in Syria and when,” Mr. Pollack adds. “Cliff-hangers might make for great movies, but the president owes the country more from a speech on the use of force.”

Bruce Riedel, senior fellow and director of the Intelligence Project, addressed the national security claim the president made:

Bruce Riedel … said an indirect connection to Americans’ security is a difficult case to make, “and the president is not making it.”

“I don’t think he can make a case, because I don’t think he knows what to do,” Riedel added.

Riedel also observed that the president “was trying to convince people of a war they don’t want, but he’s also saying wait.”

Prior to President Obama’s speech, senior fellows Elaine Kamarck and Bill Galston commented on the consequences of the president losing an authorization to strike Syria vote in Congress (a possibility the president delayed in his speech).

“If he loses,” said Kamarck, “then clearly, his lame duck status probably starts more than a year earlier than normal … Also if he loses, it’s difficult to say how the bad guys in the world, like North Korea and other places, interpret this.”

“Losing this will shatter his presidency,” Galston said. “He didn’t have to go to Congress but once he did, it’s hard for me to believe that if you consult the people’s representatives and they say no, that he can act.”

Get all of the latest research and commentary on Syria here.

* This post, originally published on 9/11/13, was updated on 9/12/13.