Reactions to President Obama’s Syria address
Weary from two punishing wars half a world away, and anxious about opening a new front in the treacherous Middle East, Americans gathered around TV sets Tuesday night to hear President Obama make a case for U.S. intervention in Syria.
Polls have shown strong resistance to any U.S. military role in Syria’s devastating civil war even before a dramatic diplomatic alternative had emerged: Russia’s proposal to place Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles under international control.
But that development did little to change the views of half a dozen Americans interviewed immediately after Obama’s nationally televised remarks, in which he said he was suspending a push for missile strikes to let diplomatic efforts proceed.
On the eve of the 12th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, those who favored military intervention to punish the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad said the U.S. still should attack if Syria did not fully cooperate. Those opposed remained adamant. Some said they remained deeply torn over the issue. They also acknowledged that the president had no good options in a seemingly intractable conflict that defies outside influence.
— David Zucchino
Former George W. Bush advisor
Spokesman for Muslim Public Affairs Council
Lt. Col. Arnold Strong
Veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan; now in U.S. Army Reserve unit in Los Angeles
Senior rabbi, Temple De Hirsch Sinai, Seattle
President of R.A.W. (Rebuilding America’s Warriors)
U.S. Army battalion surgeon during invasion of Iraq
William Inboden watched President Obama’s speech at his home in Austin, Texas, and gave the president credit for “at last speaking to the American public about Syria.”
But the much-anticipated speech, he said, embodied all of Obama’s internal conflicts and “verged on incoherent.”
“It felt like a cut-and-paste job, three different speeches where the pieces don’t align well with each other,” said Inboden, adding that the speech was in keeping with the administration’s muddled messages on Syria in years past, “They need to deliver a clear message to the American people.”
Inboden, 40, supports a decisive strike against Syria and said Obama had spent too long dithering, squandering bipartisan congressional support.
“On the one hand, you have these very strong denunciations of Assad and the barbarism of these attacks and the call for America to respond, but at the same time you have Obama saying, ‘But we’re not going to respond,’ ” he said. “The contradictions and the mixed messages there just don’t match up.
“President Obama seems to be continually having an argument with himself. At some point he needs to resolve that argument and lead. I think he could learn from President Bush,” Inboden said.
“This has felt like the kind of rookie mistakes that an administration makes in their first year of their first term, not their fifth year in office.”
During his time in the Bush White House, Inboden said, “while some mistakes were made, there were efforts made not to repeat those.”
Obama made reference to Iraq in his speech, vowing not to rashly depose a dictator and take the nation to war. Inboden said he interpreted this as the president blaming the problems he faces on his predecessor instead of taking responsibility. He noted that the president made no reference to Bush obtaining congressional authorization to send troops into Iraq — authorization Obama did not seek before taking military action in Libya.
Inboden said he’s interested to see how the diplomatic compromise on chemical weapons inspections plays out, but “those are not the core issue. The core issue is still the Assad regime itself, the regional destabilization we’re seeing and our severely diminished credibility in the region.”
He said he still supported “a robust, assertive strike,” which “done a few weeks ago would have been an effective measure, and still might be.”
— Molly Hennessy-Fiske
Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council, said President Obama made a “compelling argument for international intervention in Syria,” based on not only the use of chemical weapons but also the more than 100,000 fatalities in the civil war that preceded the chemical attacks.
The crimes against humanity in Syria began long before the gas attacks last month, he said, and Obama’s reference to the loss of life in the nation’s civil war was an important recognition that the tragedy goes beyond the use of nerve gas.
Al-Marayati, who has been a spokesman for the Muslim community for more than two decades, said he supported the diplomatic initiative to compel Syria to surrender its chemical weapons stockpile, but that alone was not enough to stop the bloodshed.
“It doesn’t solve the problem until [Syrian President Bashar] Assad leaves,” he said.
Al-Marayati said Obama’s remarks gave him hope that the chemical weapons issue was not the administration’s sole basis for putting pressure on the regime.
“We have to find the best approach to minimizing the loss of life in Syria,” he said.
Before the speech, the council published a nine-page position paper that made a case for U.S. intervention, arguing that Syria was not another Iraq and that there was compelling evidence of war crimes.
In his speech, Obama attempted to convince Americans that it was in America’s self-interest to stop Assad. He argued that the long civil war had strengthened the hand of extremists.
“I agree that when he said the longer the conflict goes on, the higher the propensity for the rise of extremists,” Al-Marayati said.
The president’s assertion that the U.S. military does not make “pinprick” strikes was an equally important message for the American public to hear, he said.
“There is a lot of bravado among these Middle East countries, but they are no match for the U.S. military,” he said. “They may be powerful when they use weapons against their own people, but they are nothing when they try to stand up to the United States.”
Al-Marayati said he supported the president’s attempt to force Syria to give up its chemical weapons, but said the effort should not stop there. If the Syrian government is allowed to prosecute its civil war even after surrendering its chemical stockpile, the bloodshed will continue, he said.
What would happen if the diplomatic efforts fall through, Assad keeps his chemical weapons and the U.S. decides to strike, but the attack does little to deter the civil war?
“We would have to cross that bridge when we get there,” Al-Marayati said.
— Ralph Vartabedian
Lt. Col. Arnold Strong
Army Lt. Col. Arnold Strong, 45, served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, he’s a public affairs detachment commander with an Army Reserve unit in Los Angeles.
After watching President Obama’s address at his Long Beach apartment, Strong said he respected Obama for taking his case directly to the American people. And he said he admired the president’s abilities as “a grand strategist.”
“The president is playing chess while a lot of us are playing checkers,” Strong said.
Even so, Strong said, he wanted more: “more of exactly what he’s asking us to do.”
As a soldier, Strong said, he believes in operational security. But he found himself wishing Obama had provided more details to make his case for why America should take military action, in the face of shocking chemical attacks on civilians that the U.S. says killed more than 1,400 people.
Asked whether he would support U.S. military strikes if diplomacy failed, Strong said, “I absolutely support the president’s prerogative to take military action if all diplomatic efforts fail. That is his job as commander in chief and his most profound responsibility.”
He added: “My personal desire is that he exhaust all diplomatic options before he sends my brothers and sisters into a conflict that could rapidly escalate.”
Although the president promised he would not put American “boots on the ground” in Syria, Strong said any U.S. service member involved in firing cruise missiles from the Mediterranean Sea would be engaged in lethal combat even if no American forces were inside Syria.
— David Zucchino
The vigil began with readings and music at St. James Cathedral late afternoon Saturday. Then hundreds of Catholics, Jews, Protestants, Muslims and Buddhists lighted candles and marched up Madison Street in downtown Seattle to the plaza at Temple De Hirsch Sinai.
The marchers prayed for a single goal: peace in Syria. But as darkness deepened and Rabbi Daniel Weiner read aloud from the book of Isaiah — “They shall beat their swords into plowshares” — he was acutely aware of how complicated a path to peace would be.
He was aghast when he saw the photographs of the Syrian dead, shrouded in white and felled, the Obama administration says, by chemical weapons ordered by their president. At the same time he wondered, why are these 1,400 or so casualties different from “the thousands upon thousands of deaths to this point” in that Middle Eastern nation ravaged by civil war?
“It’s hard to pick and choose and to seem to react randomly to suffering,” said Weiner, senior rabbi at De Hirsch Sinai, the largest Reform congregation in the Pacific Northwest. “A chemical [weapons] death, sure, is the most horrifying of deaths.
“But if someone dies of incendiary bombs or chemical weapons, they’re still dead,” he said Tuesday afternoon as he awaited President Obama’s speech. “If we’re going to respond to the slaughter of the innocents, we need to do so with some consistency.”
Weiner described himself as “incredibly torn” but said before the speech that he was leaning against retaliatory action in Syria, “not because I don’t think Assad deserves it.” His main concern was that such an attack would be a “futile gesture.”
What he wanted from the president Tuesday night was “an ideological basis and a way to move forward” in Syria and anywhere else that atrocity occurs. And it will.
He said he believed that the United States should “occupy the moral high ground.” But he also believes that this nation should have “a policy template” for actions because “this is going to happen again and again.”
Just moments after Obama’s brief but powerful accounting of the administration’s rationale for action, Weiner said he was gripped by “a real sense of painful irony: that the ideology has been laid out well, but that the practicality is impossible at this point.”
Tuesday’s speech, Weiner said, should have been given after the U.S. military bombed Syria a week or so ago. At this point, Weiner said, Assad probably has moved all potential U.S. targets, therefore dampening the effectiveness of a future strike.
Still, Weiner said, Obama “made a good case” about why this time is different and why, if chemicals “become a normative weapon of war, all the bad actors in the world will have access” to them.
And then there is Israel, Weiner said, which Obama invoked along with the use of chemical weapons in World War I.
“If Assad is going to respond, the first response is against Israel,” the rabbi said. “The imagery of a country with no compunction to use poison gas and use it against the descendants of people who survived Auschwitz is an incredibly powerful and evocative and troubling prospect.”
The bottom line for Weiner? “I’m still torn.”
— Maria L. LaGanga
Maggie Lockridge acknowledged it was a little hard to listen to President Obama’s speech Tuesday night.
Hard because she doesn’t particularly care for the Obama administration’s military policies. Hard because she doesn’t think attacking Syria makes strategic sense.
But for Lockridge, who runs a nonprofit that organizes medical treatment for wounded veterans, war has become so visceral and so personal that she just can’t fathom any more of it.
“It’s just — I’m sorry — working with the veterans as I do, and seeing the direct result of the altercations going on over there [in the Middle East], it’s very hard for me to justify any kind, in any way, of military conflict. It’s damaging to life,” Lockridge said after Obama spoke.
Lockridge is president of Rancho Mirage-based Rebuilding America’s Warriors, a group that works with 300 surgeons in 47 states, she said. RAW is dedicated to providing cosmetic care for veterans who have been permanently scarred by war. Surgeons work for free treating burn scars, for instance, or using lasers to remove sandblast shrapnel, and the organization covers the rest of the medical and transportation fees.
One man helped by RAW had a glass eye that government doctors had set too far back in its socket, she said: When he looked around with his good eye, the glass one stayed in place. “We took over the surgery, and we put an ocular implant in, and we got him a new eye and rebuilt the upper lid,” Lockridge said.
Later, she said, his mother told her the operation had done more than correct the veteran’s vision: It gave him hope for the future. “I can’t thank you enough,” she told Lockridge. “I don’t worry about my son committing suicide anymore.”
That sentiment touched Lockridge, 72, a former Air Force nurse who has seen too many wounded warriors. “When you start seeing the damages inflicted on these young lives — this is permanent damage on young lives,” she said. “War is hell.”
To make matters worse from Lockridge’s perspective, the saturation coverage of Syria has pushed America’s longest-running conflict out of the news.
“Do we hear anything about our boys still being burned to pieces in Afghanistan? No, we don’t hear anything about it, and it’s still happening all the time,” she said.
“The whole thing is just upsetting,” Lockridge said. “I think they need a woman in the White House, but not Hillary [Rodham Clinton] — somebody who has a value on our sons’ lives.”
— Matt Pearce
Erik Schobitz was an Army battalion surgeon during the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He treated wounded American soldiers, as well as Iraqi and Syrian fighters, at a makeshift combat treatment center under a highway overpass, code name “Objective Curly,” during a battle outside Baghdad in April 2003.
A pediatrician, Schobitz wore a yellow bunny stethoscope during the entire battle. He was awarded a Bronze Star.
Schobitz, 40, now directs a hospital pediatric emergency department in Rockville, Md. He listened to President Obama’s address on his car radio Tuesday as he returned from a back-to-school night for his twin 13-year-olds. He opposed U.S. military intervention in Syria before the speech, and he opposed it afterward.
“I really think getting involved in another nation’s civil war without exhausting all diplomatic options is a huge mistake,” Schobitz said before the president spoke.
After hearing Obama say he is holding off on military strikes pending diplomatic efforts, Schobitz said the U.S. should not attack Syria unilaterally even if diplomacy failed. He said he would approve of limited military strikes then only if the U.S. was part of a coalition of nations, including Russia and possibly China.
“It’s not just the United States that needs to say, ‘This is enough,’ ” he said. “The whole world needs to say it.”
Schobitz gave Obama credit for laying out the issue for all Americans, not just Republicans or Democrats. The speech reaffirmed his belief, he said, that Obama is “a brilliant person and a gifted orator.”
He acknowledged that Obama was “caught between a rock and a hard place.” Although he agrees with the president that the U.S. has a moral obligation to intervene in the wake of the chemical attacks, he said, “the intervention doesn’t have to be military.”
If the U.S. does launch cruise missile strikes, Schobitz said, “we’re going to hit women and children.”
Schobitz said he supported the decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Even after no weapons of mass destruction were found, he still believed that military intervention was justified because Saddam Hussein represented a threat to U.S. security.
Today, more than a decade after that battle under the overpass, Schobitz no longer has his yellow plastic bunny.
But he has kept one memento of the battle: his combat boots, still stained with the blood of the men he treated.
— David Zucchino