By Lanny J. Davis - 09/11/13 03:39 PM EDT
In my view, Barack Obama’s speech on Syria yesterday was the high point of his presidency. Ultimately it could cement his place in history the way President Kennedy’s courage and resolve during the Cuban missile crisis did for him.
Public opinion was against Obama on a limited military strike to hold brutal murderer and dictator Bashar Assad accountable for his regime’s use of deathly sarin gas on his own people. The Senate and the House, both Democrats and Republicans, appeared ready to reject his request for authorization for the strike.
Up until the president’s speech Tuesday night, I was conflicted on his plans for a military attack. I remain concerned about both the efficacy of the strike and the unknown and unintended consequences.
And then, because the president held firm and his threat of military action was credible, even with Congress threatening to refuse authorization, Vladimir Putin and the murderous Assad blinked. Russia’s president agreed to insist on his client Assad giving up his chemical weapons entirely. And Assad agreed, after lying repeatedly over these many months and years, to give up the very chemical weapons he had denied he had.
We don’t yet know what will happen next, as I write this column late on Wednesday night following the president’s simple and direct speech to the American people. He asked congressional leaders to delay any vote on action pending Putin’s enforcement of the agreement to take away all of Assad’s chemical weapons, subject to confirmation through international inspection that they are gone and gone forever. We shall see — we can only pray — that this happens and can be verified. The option remains to launch the strike.
In any event, I believe the U.S. should step up its support for what appears to be a genuine civilian and military anti-terrorist, pro-secular democracy coalition in Syria, as Republican Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) have urged for months.
To me, the most powerful moment of the president’s speech last night was when he took the simple moral position that Americans could not stand by and do nothing while Assad ignored international law and was responsible for launching poison gas against innocent men, women, and children.
I was reminded of the haunting words of former President Clinton, who has said that the greatest mistake of his presidency was doing nothing to stop the slaughter of up to one million Rwandans. Clinton and the rest of us can never forget the scenes on TV of tens of thousands of bodies floating down the Kagera River in Rwanda.
I was also reminded of the memorable words of Martin Niemöller, the prominent Protestant pastor who emerged as an outspoken foe of Adolph Hitler and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps. After the war, Niemöller lectured in America about those who were complicit by their silence or decision to “not interfere” as Hitler sent 6 million Jews to their deaths. Niemöller said this to himself and others in Hitler’s Germany:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”
You can agree or disagree with Obama’s policies or decisions. But I would hope that all Americans — in red states and blue states and purple states — would credit the president’s credible threat of military force with offering an alternative — the verified removal of Assad’s chemical weapons — while also reminding all of us of the lessons represented by Niemöller's memorable words.
May we never forget them.
Davis served as special counsel to former President Clinton and is principal in the Washington D.C. law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, in which he specializes in crisis management. He is special counsel to Dilworth Paxson of Philadelphia and the author of a recently published book, Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping with Crises in Business, Politics, and Life (Threshold Editions/Simon and Schuster).