Saturday, September 28, 2013

Climate change

From the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report on Climate Change:

Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased.
The atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. CO2 concentrations have increased by 40% since pre-industrial times, primarily from fossil fuel emissions and secondarily from net land use change emissions. The ocean has absorbed about 30% of the emitted anthropogenic carbon dioxide, causing ocean acidification.
 Human influence has been detected in warming of the atmosphere and the ocean, in changes in the global water cycle, in reductions in snow and ice, in global mean sea level rise, and in changes in some climate extremes. This evidence for human influence has grown since AR4. It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.
Continued emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and changes in all components of the climate system. Limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Green Eggs and Ham

Let's not quibble about whether Senator Cruz's taking to the floor for hours to protest Obamacare is a "real" filibuster or not. It seems more real than all the demands for cloture votes and such that we've grown accustomed to nowadays. And just because it is futile doesn't take away from its realness. Wendy Davis's heroic running out the clock on a Texas legislative session was also futile. So was Strom Thurmond's legendary filibuster of the Civil Rights Act. I would argue that whenever one person takes on the whole system and tries whether in vain or not to slow down the wheels of legislation, that constitutes a filibuster. And if we applaud when Bernie Sanders does it, we should applaud just as much when Rand Paul or Ted Cruz does it. Good for you, Ted! You drew attention to your cause. You stood up for your beliefs. And you exposed your position for everyone to judge. That's what a filibuster is supposed to do.

I didn't listen to much of Ted Cruz's speech, but I loved his recitation of "Green Eggs and Ham," supposedly as a bedtime story for his daughter. People are saying Cruz does not understand the point of this simple story, but I say Ted Cruz is not that stupid. He understands it perfectly well. In fact, the story of "Green Eggs and Ham" is a great metaphor for Obamacare. On one side you have unreasoning prejudice. On the other you have the desire for empirical proof. And once unreasoning prejudice gives in to the demand for empirical proof, lo and behold we find out that people like green eggs and ham after all. And what else would explain the absolute desperation of people like Ted Cruz to do everything possible to keep Obamacare from taking effect other than their fear that once people try it, they might actually like it?

UN address

(full transcript here)

Friday, September 20, 2013


In the world of international diplomacy, a lot is usually going on behind the scenes. And there are a lot of good reasons to keep preliminary negotiations confidential until deals are ready to be announced. As a result, if you get your news from cable tv, or even the newspaper, you don't always have the context behind the latest crisis. In the case of recent events in Syria, people watching or reading the news had the impression that it was only in response to the latest Syrian government attack, that the President of the United States was suddenly threatening to drop bombs on Syria, then was suddenly asking Congress for permission to do that, then was saved from a possible defeat in Congress by the President of Russia who came up with a last-minute plan to avoid bloodshed. In fact, however, we are gradually learning that the deal between the U.S. and Russia to disarm the Syrian government of chemical weapons had been discussed behind the scenes for a long time. It needed a precipitating event to make it happen. It might have needed a threat of force by the United States. But it was in the works for a long time. So Putin doesn't get all the credit for this diplomatic breakthrough, as I suggested in my previous rant. President Obama should also be getting a lot of credit.

Similarly, we received the exciting news this week that the recently-elected President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, has, in advance of his planned speech to the UN General Assembly next week, taken to the American op-ed pages (like President Putin) to announce a new policy of constructive engagement with the US. Here are some excerpts from Rouhani's piece in the Washington Post:
The world has changed. International politics is no longer a zero-sum game but a multi-dimensional arena where cooperation and competition often occur simultaneously. Gone is the age of blood feuds. World leaders are expected to lead in turning threats into opportunities. . . .
In a world where global politics is no longer a zero-sum game, it is — or should be — counterintuitive to pursue one’s interests without considering the interests of others. A constructive approach to diplomacy doesn’t mean relinquishing one’s rights. It means engaging with one’s counterparts, on the basis of equal footing and mutual respect, to address shared concerns and achieve shared objectives. In other words, win-win outcomes are not just favorable but also achievable.
All very encouraging, but to put this matter in context let's remember that it was President Obama who, while tightening sanctions on Iran and making bellicose statements about what we might do if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, has long been interested in opening a dialogue with Iran. When candidate Obama talked about the possibility of an opening to Iran during the 2008 campaign, that was one of the major points that differentiated his candidacy from Clinton's and then McCain's, and the idea turned out to play well for him. We are also now learning that there have been letters exchanged between the two presidents for some time leading up to Rouhani's announcement. In other words, the possibility of a sudden breakthrough in relations with Iran has been years in the making, and the product of steady work behind the scenes by President Obama and his foreign policy team. What has changed is the election of a new president in Iran who may represent a reasonable negotiating partner. And that, using Rouhani's words, is what can turn threats into opportunities.

Thursday, September 19, 2013


The White House
Office of the Press Secretary

Remarks by the President at the Business Roundtable

Business Roundtable Headquarters
Washington, D.C. 
10:46 A.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT:  Thank you, everybody.  (Applause.)  Well, Jim, thank you for the introduction.  Thanks to Dave and Andrew and John -- all the men and women of the Business Roundtable.  I’ve had a chance to not only present before this body before, but many of you have been doing wonderful work with the administration on a whole range of issues.  And the point that Jim just made about the commitment that some of the companies here made in hiring and promoting our returning veterans is extraordinary.  And so we’re very, very grateful for that.
Last time I was here in December I told Jim -- once the mics were working -- (laughter) -- that I’m hugely invested in your success, because this room represents not only an enormous amount of economic output, but also represents the hopes and dreams of people who are working very hard trying to make a living -- small businesses who are supplying large companies like yours.  When you succeed, when you’re doing well, when you’re competitive at a global scale, then America can do well also.  And so we want to be a consistent partner with you on a whole range of issues, and we have. 
If you think about where we were five years ago -- obviously we’re marking the fifth anniversary of the collapse of Lehman that triggered the worst financial crisis and then, ultimately, worst economic crisis that we’ve seen in our lifetimes -- I think it’s fair to say that we’ve come a long way. 
At that point, the auto industry was flat-lining.  You had the entire financial sector locked up.  A number of banks were in deep trouble.  And most acutely for ordinary families all across this country, they were losing jobs, losing homes, losing their life savings.  And there was a genuine fear across the board that we might not be able to pull out way out of it. 
And we have.  Thanks to the grit and resilience of the American people, thanks to some outstanding work that’s been done by many of your companies, we are in a much stronger position now than when we were then.  And we’ve created now 7.5 million new jobs in the private sector.  Many of your companies have added to your payrolls.  And that’s made a huge difference.
We’ve seen quarters of consecutive growth that are still too slow, not as fast as we’d like, but relative to other developed countries around the world, we’ve actually fared a lot better.  The housing market has begun to recover.  Exports are at record highs.  We are producing more energy than we ever have before.  And although in a world energy market, for us to say that we’re entirely energy independent is a little bit of a misnomer.  What’s absolutely true is, is that the geopolitics of energy have shifted, and that’s strengthened our manufacturing base here and made it a much more attractive place for us to invest.
The deficits have been coming down at the fastest rate since World War II.  The deficit has been cut in half since I came into office.  Health care costs, which were and continue to be a major source of concern, are increasing at the slowest rate in 50 years.  And for many of you in terms of your bottom lines, employer-based health care plans have gone up at about a third of what they were going up when I first took office. 
And so there’s a lot of bright spots in the economy, a lot of progress has been made and a lot of good news to report.  But I think what we all recognize is we’re not where we need to be yet.  We’ve still got a lot of work to do.  And we know what it is that we need to do.  We know that if we implement immigration reform, that that can add potentially a trillion dollars to our economy and that we will continue to attract the best and brightest talent around the world. 
We know that we can do even more when it comes to exports, which is why I’m out there negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership and now a Transatlantic Trade Partnership that will allow us to create a high standard, enforceable, meaningful trade agreement with essentially two-thirds of the world markets, which is going to be incredibly powerful for American companies who, up until this point, have often been locked out of those markets.
We know that we’ve still got to make a lot of progress when it comes to our education system.  And I want to thank the BRT because you’ve worked with us on issues like creating a common cause -- a common core that ensures that every young person in America has the opportunity to get prepared for the kinds of jobs that are going to exist in the 21st century.  And I’m going to be talking to all of you a lot to work with us in making college much more affordable, because just as we’ve had to take a hard look at what we can do to start bringing down health care costs, we’ve also got to start taking a hard look at what we’re going to do to bring down college costs.  We now have over a trillion dollars’ worth of student loan debt that is hampering the economy, preventing young people from buying homes, starting families, and spending money buying your products.
The good news is that every one of the challenges that we confront, every one of the barriers -- whether it’s education, immigration, infrastructure -- that prevent us from being as competitive as we could be, they’re all solvable.  We have good ideas.  There’s actually pretty good consensus in terms of how we might move forward.  The problem is right now that this town, Washington, is locked up.  And we are not seeing the kind of progress that we should on these issues.
So immigration is the most obvious example.  We have bipartisan agreement; we got a bill passed out of the Senate.  It’s sitting there in the House, and if Speaker Boehner called that bill today, it would pass.  We’ve got a majority of the House of Representatives that’s prepared to vote for it, and we could transform our immigration system in a way that would be really good for your companies and really good for our economy. 
The reason it’s not happening is because there’s a small faction that insists that our tradition as a nation of laws but also a nation of immigrants somehow is un-American and they oppose it.  And that duplicates itself on a whole range of these issues.  And now, in the next several weeks, it’s going to manifest itself in what is going to be probably the most critical debate about our economy over the next several months, and that is what we do about our budget.  So let me just speak very briefly to that issue. 
As I said before, our deficits are coming down very fast.  In fact, the IMF and other international organizations that had cautioned us previously about our deficits are actually now concerned that we're bringing our deficits down too fast.  That's the assessment of the economists.  On the current trajectory that we're on and if we were to pass the budget that I put forward, our deficits would continue to go down.  And we would have a deficit-to-GDP ratio below 3 percent, which is typically the standard at which it's sustainable. 
Now, in order for us to do that we've got to do a couple of things.  Number one, we've got to continue to be tightfisted when it comes to spending on things we don't need.  We've got to continue to streamline government.  We've got to continue to cut out waste.  And there's waste to be had, and there are programs that don't work or used to work and are now obsolete and we should eliminate.  And we've identified a whole range of programs that we want to eliminate and programs that we'd like to consolidate. 
But what is also true is that if we're going to be honest about our debt and our deficits, our real problem is the long term, not the short term.  We're not overspending on education.  We're not overspending on research and development.  We're not overspending on helping the disabled.  Those things have all been flat for a long time or are coming down.  Our challenge has to do with our long-term entitlement programs and mostly have to do with our health care costs. 
So the fact that the Affordable Care Act has been put into place and that many of you are taking steps within your own companies, we're seeing health care costs come down.  We're still going to have to do a little bit more, because the population is aging and demographics means that people are going to be using more health care costs and the government is going to have to grapple with that.  That's a long term challenge.
The budget I put forward actually proposes some smart fixes on Medicare, some smart fixes on Medicaid, and creates a sustainable path where we continue to invest in the things we need to grow -- education, infrastructure, research and development -- deals with our long-term structural deficits that arise out of entitlements, and put us in a strong position for decades to come.
The problem we have right now is that, again, that same faction in Congress is no longer talking about debt and deficits when it comes to resolving the budget.  Initially, this was an argument about how much we spend on discretionary spending, how much do we spend on defense -- you could sit down across the table, try to negotiate some numbers.  That's no longer the argument.  What we now have is a ideological fight that's been mounted in the House of Representatives that says, we're not going to pass a budget and we will threaten a government shutdown unless we repeal the Affordable Care Act.
We have not seen this in the past that a budget is contingent on us eliminating a program that was voted on, passed by both chambers of Congress, ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court, is two weeks from being fully implemented, and that helps 30 million people finally get health care coverage.  We've never seen that become the issue around a budget battle.  And so that's right now the primary roadblock to resolving the budget. 
What’s worse, that same faction has said, if we can't succeed in shutting the government down and leveraging that to eliminate the Affordable Care Act, we may be prepared to let the government default on our debt.
Now, this debt ceiling -- I just want to remind people in case you haven’t been keeping up -- raising the debt ceiling, which has been done over a hundred times, does not increase our debt; it does not somehow promote profligacy.  All it does is it says you got to pay the bills that you’ve already racked up, Congress.  It’s a basic function of making sure that the full faith and credit of the United States is preserved.
And I’ve heard people say, well, in the past, there have been negotiations around raising the debt ceiling.  It’s always a tough vote because the average person thinks raising the debt ceiling must mean that we’re running up our debt, so people don't like to vote on it, and, typically, there’s some gamesmanship in terms of making the President’s party shoulder the burden of raising the -- taking the vote.  And then there’s some political campaign later that smacks them around for saying, Joe Smith voted to raise the debt ceiling by $2 trillion.  And it sounds terrible and it’s a fun talking point for politics, but it always gets done.
And if there is a budget package that includes the debt ceiling vote, it’s not the debt ceiling that is driving the negotiations; it’s just it’s stuck into the budget negotiations, because if you’re going to take a bunch of tough votes anyway, you might as well go ahead and stick that in there.
You have never seen in the history of the United States the debt ceiling or the threat of not raising the debt ceiling being used to extort a President or a governing party, and trying to force issues that have nothing to do with the budget and have nothing to do with the debt. 
So here’s where we are -- and I think this is the bottom line, and I want to make sure everybody is clear here.  I have presented a budget that deals with -- continues to deal with our deficit effectively.  I am prepared to work with Democrats and Republicans to deal with our long-term entitlement issues.  And I am prepared to look at priorities that the Republicans think we should be promoting and priorities that they think we should be  -- we shouldn’t be promoting.  So I’m happy to negotiate with them around the budget, just as I’ve done in the past.
What I will not do is to create a habit, a pattern, whereby the full faith and credit of the United States ends up being a bargaining chip to set policy.  It’s irresponsible.  The last time we did this in 2011, we had negative growth at a time when the recovery was just trying to take off.  And it would fundamentally change how American government functions.
And if you doubt that, just flip the script for a second and imagine a situation in which a Democratic Speaker said to a Republican President, I’m not going to increase the debt ceiling unless you increase corporate taxes by 20 percent.  And if you don't do it, we’ll default on the debt and cause a worldwide financial crisis.  Even though that Democratic Speaker didn't have the votes to force through that particular piece of legislation, they would simply say, we will blow the whole thing up unless you do what I want.  That can't be a recipe for government.
And I have responsibilities at this point not just to the current generation but to future generations, and we’re not going to set up a situation where the full faith and credit of the United States is put on the table every year or every year and a half, and we go through some sort of terrifying financial brinksmanship because of some ideological arguments that people are having about some particular issue of the day.  We’re not going to do that.
So the good news is that we can raise the debt ceiling tomorrow just by a simple vote in each chamber, and set that aside, and then we can have a serious argument about the budget. And there are significant differences still between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to the budget.
But it is going to be important for all of you I think over the next several weeks to understand what’s at stake and to make sure that you are using your influence in whatever way you can to get back to what used to be called regular order around here -- doing things in a way that reflect the genuine, messy negotiations of democracy but do not promise apocalypse every three months.  And I think this is the time for us to say once and for all we can't afford these kinds of plays.
I know the American people are tired of it.  I'm tired of it, and I suspect you're tired of it, too, because it’s pretty hard to plan your businesses when these kinds of things are looming at any given moment. 

Monday, September 16, 2013


Based on about five years of writing a blog whose main mission is to support the president, I can attest that you generally can't go wrong taking that position. This was proven again this week when President Obama's firm and courageous stand against chemical weapons use in Syria resulted in an agreement with Russia to disarm Syria's stockpile of those weapons. Even people who had doubts about the use of military force in Syria should recognize that backing up the president on this issue might have turned out to be the smart thing to do, since it gave him enough credibility to get Syria and Russia to back down.

Of course some will never give the president credit for this achievement. I heard some commentators on the right this past week saying they trust the President of Russia more than the President of the United States. (a stance they probably would have called treasonous during the Bush or Reagan years) Imagine trusting Putin! This is the chief backer of one of the most despicable dictators in the world, a proven liar who only a few days ago was still suggesting that it was the rebels and not the Syrian government who were responsible for the gas attack in August. To trust the Russian leader and his hateful client the dictator of Syria over President Obama, who happens to have extricated us from two wars and kept us out of a couple of others, shows a kind of willful blindness. I just have to shake my head in wonder at the knots that critics on the right sometimes tie themselves into to make sure that they never give the president credit for anything.

Meanwhile I heard some critics on the left, with their knee jerk opposition to using any kind of military force anywhere, practically turn into apologists for one of the worst governments on earth, one that has committed almost incomprehensible atrocities against its own people. And shamelessly lied about it. Only a few days after denying that they even had chemical weapons, they are now agreeing to give them up.

This week I also heard lots of congressmen making every excuse they could think of to try to avoid doing their jobs. They were so relieved they did not have to take a stand on an issue that actually matters that they were ready to kiss the feet of the Russian autocrat who, by giving in to the president's demands, saved them from having to make a difficult decision.

All this running from responsibility and making excuses for inaction was enough to make me disgusted with the whole government, the media, and large swaths of public opinion. Thankfully, we still have the shining exception of the president and his foreign policy team. President Obama took a principled stand that was not particularly popular with a public weary of intervention in foreign crises, and was vindicated by achieving a potential breakthrough in arms control, and an opening to resolve the Syrian civil war itself. We're not out of the woods yet in the Middle East by any means, but people have to recognize that there is more cause for hope in Syria than anyone could have predicted earlier this summer. Maybe people should consider giving the president a little more benefit of the doubt. Maybe we should just be proud that, thanks to Barack Obama, we did not just stand idly by while a tyrant tried to get away with gassing his own people.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Monday, September 9, 2013


Remarks by Ambassador Samantha Power, U.S. Permanent
Representative to the United Nations, on Syria at the Center
for American Progress, Washington D.C.

U.S. Mission to the United Nations 
Washington, DC
September 6, 2013

Good afternoon. I’m very glad to be back in Washington this afternoon, and among so many friends here at the Center for American Progress. As you know, my topic today is Syria, which presents one of the most critical foreign policy challenges we face.
Syria is important because it lies at the heart of a region critical to U.S. security, a region that is home to friends and partners and one of our closest allies. It is important because the Syrian regime possesses stores of chemical weapons that they have recently used on a large scale and that we cannot allow to fall into terrorists’ hands.
It is important because the Syrian regime is collaborating with Iran, and works in lockstep with thousands of extremist fighters from Hezbollah. And Syria is important because its people – in seeking freedom and dignity -- have suffered unimaginable horror these last two and a half years.
But I also recognize how ambivalent Americans are about the situation there.
On the one hand, we Americans share a desire, after two wars, which have taken 6,700 American lives and cost over $1 trillion dollars, to invest taxpayer dollars in American schools and infrastructure. Yet on the other hand, Americans have heard the President’s commitment that this will not be Iraq, this will not be Afghanistan, this will not be Libya. Any use of force will be limited and tailored narrowly to the chemical weapons threat.
On the one hand, we share an abhorrence for the brutal, murderous tactics of Bashar al-Assad. Yet on the other hand, we are worried about the violent extremists who, while opposed to Assad, have themselves carried out atrocities.
On the one hand, we share the deep conviction that chemical weapons are barbaric, that we should never again see children killed in their beds, lost to a world that they never had a chance to try to change. Yet on the other hand, some are wondering why – given the flagrant violation of an international norm – it is incumbent on the United States to lead, since we cannot and should not be the world’s policeman.
Notwithstanding these complexities – notwithstanding the various concerns that we all share – I am here today to explain why the costs of not taking targeted, limited military action are far greater than the risks of going forward in the manner that President Obama has outlined.
Every decision to use military force is an excruciatingly difficult one. It is especially difficult when one filters the Syria crisis through the prism of the past decade.
But let me take a minute to discuss the uniquely monstrous crime that has brought us to this crossroads. What comes to mind for me is one father in al-Ghouta saying goodbye to his two young daughters. His girls had not yet been shrouded, they were still dressed in the pink shorts and leggings of little girls. The father lifted their lifeless bodies, cradled them, and cried out “Wake up...What would I do without you?... How do I stand this pain?” As a parent, I cannot begin to answer his questions. I cannot begin to imagine what it would be like to feel such searing agony.
In arguing for limited military action in the wake of this mass casualty chemical weapons atrocity, we are not arguing that Syrian lives are worth protecting only when they are threatened with poison gas. Rather, we are reaffirming what the world has already made plain in laying down its collective judgment on chemical weapons: there is something different about chemical warfare that raises the stakes for the United States and raises the stakes for the world.
There are many reasons that governments representing 98% of the world’s population – including all 15 members of the UN Security Council – agreed to ban chemical weapons.
These weapons kill in the most gruesome possible way. They kill indiscriminately – they are incapable of distinguishing between a child and a rebel. And they have the potential to kill massively. We believe that this one attack in Damascus claimed more than 1,400 lives, far more than even the worst attacks by conventional means in Syria. And we assess that, although Assad used more chemical weapons on August 21 than he had before, he has barely put a dent in his enormous stockpile, and the international community has clearly not yet put a dent in his willingness to use them.
President Obama, Secretary Kerry, and many members of Congress have spelled out the consequences of failing to meet this threat. If there are more chemical attacks, we will see an inevitable spike in the flow of refugees, on top of the already two million in the region, possibly pushing Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey or Iraq past their breaking points. The fourth largest city in Jordan right now is already the Zaatari refugee camp. Half of Syria’s refugees are children, and we know what can happen to children who grow to adulthood without hope or opportunity in refugee camps; the camps become fertile recruiting grounds for violent extremists.
And beyond Syria, if the violation of a universal agreement to ban chemical weapons is not met with a meaningful response, other regimes will seek to acquire or use them to protect or extend their power, increasing risks to American troops in the future. We cannot afford to signal to North Korea and Iran that the international community is unwilling to act to prevent proliferation or willing to tolerate the use of weapons of mass destruction. If there are no consequences now for breaking the prohibition on chemical weapons, it will be harder to muster an international consensus to ensure that Hizballah and other terrorist groups are prevented from acquiring or using these weapons themselves.
People will draw lessons if the world proves unwilling to enforce the norms against chemical weapons use that we have worked so diligently to construct.
And Israel’s security is threatened by instability in the region and its security is enhanced when those who would do it harm know that the United States stands behind its word. That’s why we’ve seen Israel’s supporters in the United States come out in support of the President’s proposed course of action.
These are just some of the risks of inaction. But many Americans and some Members in Congress have legitimately focused as well on the risks of action. They have posed a series of important questions, and I would like to use the remainder of my remarks to address a few of them.
Some have asked, given our collective war-weariness, why we cannot use non-military tools to achieve the same end. My answer to this question is: we have exhausted the alternatives. For more than a year, we have pursued countless policy tools short of military force to try to dissuade Assad from using chemical weapons. We have engaged the Syrians directly and, at our request, the Russians, the UN, and the Iranians sent similar messages.
But when SCUDS and other horrific weapons didn’t quell the Syrian rebellion, Assad began using chemical weapons on a small-scale multiple times, as the United States concluded in June.
Faced with this growing evidence of several small-scale subsequent attacks, we redoubled our efforts. We backed the UN diplomatic process and tried to get the parties back to the negotiating table, recognizing that a political solution is the best way to reduce all forms of threat. We provided more humanitarian assistance. And on chemical weapons specifically, we assembled and went public with compelling and frightening evidence of the regime’s use.
We worked with the UN to create a group of inspectors and then worked for more than six months to get them access to the country, on the logic that perhaps the presence of an investigative team in the country might deter future attacks. Or if not, at a minimum, we thought perhaps a shared evidentiary base could convince Russia or Iran – itself a victim of Saddam Hussein’s monstrous chemical weapons attacks in 1987-1988 – to cast loose a regime that was gassing its people. We expanded and accelerated our assistance to the Syrian opposition. We supported the UN Commission of Inquiry.
Russia, often backed by China, has blocked every relevant action in the Security Council, even mild condemnations of the use of chemical weapons that did not ascribe blame to any particular party. In Assad’s cost-benefit calculus, he must have weighed the military benefits of using this hideous weapon against the recognition that he could get away with it because Russia would have Syria’s back in the Security Council. And on August 21 he staged the largest chemical weapons attack in a quarter century while UN inspectors were sitting on the other side of town.
It is only after the United States pursued these non-military options without achieving the desired result of deterring chemical weapons use, that the President concluded that a limited military strike is the only way to prevent Assad from employing chemical weapons as if they are a conventional weapon of war.
I am here today because I believe – and President Obama believes – that those of us who are arguing for the limited use of force must justify our position, accepting responsibility for the risks and potential consequences of action. When one considers pursuing non-military measures, we must similarly address the risks inherent in those approaches.
At this stage, the diplomatic process is stalled because one side has just been gassed on a massive scale and the other side so far feels it has gotten away with it. What would words – in the form of belated diplomatic condemnation – achieve? What could the International Criminal Court really do, even if Russia or China were to allow a referral? Would a drawn out legal process really affect the immediate calculus of Assad and those who ordered chemical weapons attacks? We could try again to pursue economic sanctions, but – even if Russia budged – would more asset freezes, travel bans, and banking restrictions convince Assad not to use chemical weapons again when he has a pipeline to the resources of Hezbollah and Iran? Does anybody really believe that deploying the same approaches we have tried for the last year will suddenly be effective?
Of course, this isn’t the only legitimate question being raised. People are asking, shouldn’t the United States work through the Security Council on an issue that so clearly implicates international peace and security? The answer is, of course, yes. We would if we could, but we can’t. Every day for the two and a half years of the Syrian conflict, we have shown how seriously we take the UN Security Council and our obligations to enforce international peace and security.
Since 2011, Russia and China have vetoed three separate Security Council resolutions condemning the Syrian regime’s violence or promoting a political solution to the conflict. This year alone, Russia has blocked at least three statements expressing humanitarian concern and calling for humanitarian access to besieged cities in Syria. And in the past two months, Russia has blocked two resolutions condemning the generic use of chemical weapons and two press statements expressing concern about their use. We believe that more than 1,400 people were killed in Damascus on August 21, and the Security Council could not even agree to put out a press statement expressing its disapproval.
The international system that was founded in 1945 —a system we designed specifically to respond to the kinds of horrors we saw play out in World War II—has not lived up to its promise or its responsibilities in the case of Syria. And it is naive to think that Russia is on the verge of changing its position and allowing the UN Security Council to assume its rightful role as the enforcer of international peace and security. In short, the Security Council the world needs to deal with this urgent crisis is not the Security Council we have.
Many Americans recognize that, while we were right to seek to work through the Security Council, it is clear that Syria is one of those occasions – like Kosovo – when the Council is so paralyzed that countries have to act outside it if they are to prevent the flouting of international laws and norms. But these same people still reasonably ask: Beyond the Security Council, what support does the United States have in holding Assad accountable?
While the United States possesses unique capabilities to carry out a swift, limited, and proportionate strike so as to prevent and deter future use of chemical weapons, countries around the world have joined us in supporting decisive action.
The Arab League has urged international action against Syria in response to what it called the “ugly crime” of using chemical weapons. The NATO Secretary General has said that the Syrian regime “is responsible” and that “we need a firm international response to avoid that chemical attacks take place in the future.” The Organization of Islamic Cooperation blamed the Syrian government for the chemical attacks and called for “decisive action.” And eleven countries at the G-20 Summit today called for a “strong international response” and noted their “support for efforts undertaken by the United States and other countries to reinforce the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.”
As I have found over the last week at the UN, the more that countries around the world are confronted with the hard facts of what occurred on August 21, the more they recognize that the steep price of impunity for Assad could extend well beyond Syria. The President's decision to seek congressional support has also given the United States time to mobilize additional international support, and there is no question that authorization by our Congress will help strengthen our case.
One of the most common concerns we have heard centers less on the how or when of intervention, but on the what. Some Americans are asking, how can we be sure that the United States will avoid a slippery slope that would lead to full-scale war with Syria? On the other hand, others are asking, if the U.S. action is limited, how will that have the desired effect on Assad?
These are good and important questions. The United States cannot police every crisis any more than we can shelter every refugee. The President has made it clear: he is responding militarily to a mass casualty chemical weapons incident; any military action will be a meaningful, time-limited response to deter the regime from using chemical weapons again – and to degrade its ability to do so. From the start of the Syrian conflict, the President has consistently demonstrated that he will not put American boots on the ground to fight another war in the Middle East. The draft resolution before Congress makes this clear.
President Obama is seeking your support to employ limited military means to achieve very specific ends – to degrade Assad’s capacity to use these weapons again, and deter others in the world who might follow suit – and the United States has the discipline as a country to maintain these limits.
Limited military action will not be designed to solve the entire Syria problem -- not even the most ardent proponents of military intervention in Syria believe that peace can be achieved through military means. But this action should have the effect of reinforcing our larger strategy for addressing the crisis in Syria.
By degrading Assad's capacity to deliver chemical weapons, we will also degrade his ability to strike at civilian populations by conventional means. In addition this operation, combined with ongoing efforts to upgrade the military capabilities of the moderate opposition, should reduce the regime’s faith that they can kill their way to victory. In this instance, the use of limited military force can strengthen our diplomacy – and energize the efforts by the UN and others to achieve a negotiated settlement to the underlying conflict.
Let me add a few thoughts in closing. I know I have not addressed every doubt that exists in this room, in this town, in this country, or in the broader international community. This is the right debate for us to have. We should be asking the hard questions and making deliberate choices before embarking upon action. There is no risk-free door #2 that we can choose in this case.
Public skepticism of foreign interventions is an extremely healthy phenomenon in our democracy, a check against the excessive use of military power.
The American people elect leaders to exercise judgment, and there have been times in our history when presidents have taken hard decisions to use force that were not initially popular, because they believed our interests demanded it. From 1992, when the Bosnian genocide started, till 1995, when President Clinton launched the air strikes that stopped the war, public opinion consistently opposed military action there. Even after we succeeded in ending the war and negotiating a peace settlement, the House of Representatives, reflecting public opinion, voted against deploying American troops to a NATO peacekeeping mission.
There is no question that this deployment of American power saved lives and returned stability to a critical region of the world and a critical region for the United States.
We all have a choice to make. Whether we are Republicans or Democrats, whether we have supported past military interventions or opposed them, whether we have argued for or against such action in Syria prior to this point, we should agree that there are lines in this world that cannot be crossed, and limits on murderous behavior, especially with weapons of mass destruction, that must be enforced.
If we cannot summon the courage to act when the evidence is clear, and when the action being contemplated is limited, then our ability to lead in the world is compromised. The alternative is to give a green light to outrages that will threaten our security and haunt our conscience, outrages that will eventually compel us to use force anyway down the line, at far greater risk and cost to our own citizens. If the last century teaches us anything, it is this. Thank you so much.