My fellow Americans, tonight I want to give you a report on what your government has been doing these past days and weeks to help avert a grave international humanitarian crisis. As most of you know, last week, together with a number of other officials, I went to St Petersburg, Russia, to participate in the G20 meeting of the heads of government of the globe’s largest economies.
At this meeting we had frank talks about some of the most difficult, most important economic and financial issues that confront us all, no matter where we live. While it is easy to say that these topics are distant from the average family’s daily challenges, in truth they affect every American, and indeed every person on the globe, in ways both big and small, from the things we do, where we work and what we buy, to how we will live our lives in the future. A meeting like the G20 produces no immediate solutions and some disparage it for being what they call a “talk shop”. Nevertheless, it is crucial that leaders come together for such talks to begin to find ways to solve some of our most intractable, complex problems.
For those of us who participated in this recent meeting, two things stood out sharply. First of all, there was real concern that as leaders we must concentrate our energies to find ways to reignite growth in our respective economies so our industries can produce what we need and so our economies can generate new jobs – good, well-paying jobs that will provide real futures for our children and beyond. This is just as true in China as it is America, or anywhere else for that matter. All of our futures are so intertwined; it is no longer enough for one country to succeed while the rest languish in the economic doldrums. For that very reason we talked at length about how best to stimulate the global economy as a whole, not just in our individual parts.
We also discussed – even argued about at times – how to make our economies operate more fairly and more equitably. We spoke frankly about how to make our individual economies able to tax the companies operating around the world so that one nation does not unfairly profit from the circumstances of another. In the long run, it will do none of us any good if a company can hide its profits in obscure tax havens, or make its fair and reasonable tax obligations mysteriously vanish, while that same company depends on the services of governments in so many other nations.
The challenge for all of us, of course, is to figure out how to make our economies operate in tandem so that these big companies pay their fair share (but not a penny more) to support the crucial things we all need in our lives. This includes, for example, efforts to make the air we breathe and the water we must use cleaner than before; and to stem the tide of global warming; and to fund our educational systems appropriately so they can nurture and educate our children, as they become adults in a better tomorrow.
Now of course we won’t have complete success overnight with such an ambitious global agenda. No, instead this will, for all of us, be the work of decades. But it is a start. And now the hard work will really begin, as diplomats will meet to hammer out the fine details of each and every agreement.
Of course none of you will be surprised to learn that we also had a moment or two to talk about Syria. What the Syrian people have faced over the past two years must seem to the rest of us virtually beyond the scope of human endurance. Perhaps 100,000 people have already died, many of them innocent men, women and children uninvolved in any fighting. Twenty times that number, as many as 2-million, have fled the fighting for the uncertain safety of a simple tent on unfamiliar ground in the fields and valleys of neighbouring Turkey or Jordan. Thousands of others have taken up arms against a government they fear, and thousands more are obeying orders to defend that same government. There seems no end in sight.
But into this terrible civil war a new, even more unimaginable horror arrived. A few weeks ago military units fired artillery shells armed with sarin nerve gas at civilians, killing as many as 1,500 in agonizing deaths that echoed the terrible carnage of those poison gas attacks along the Western Front during World War I, attacks that took place nearly a century ago.
That very experience forced the nations of the world to come together under the Geneva Protocol of 1925 to ban the future use of such weapons, arguing war was already horrible enough without the use of weapons that poisoned the very air people breathe to do their wretched killing. Although Syria has not yet signed a second treaty, the more recent Chemical Weapons Convention, it is a signatory to that earlier treaty, and the world community must surely demand it uphold the provisions of that global agreement.
In recent days, after video footage of the sufferings of people poisoned by the gas attacks circled the globe on television news, on the Internet and on social media, our government finally managed to uncover a chain of commands in the Syrian military that demonstrated, conclusively, this attack came from the government.
In an unprecedented gesture we are placing this information on our White House Internet website in a totally unclassified way, without editing to protect our sources and methods of obtaining this information, to make it available to everyone, everywhere, at any time, who wishes to see it for themselves. This is the very same data my administration has already provided to members of the United States Congress in classified briefings, and that America’s diplomats are now making available to governments all around the world. This time, we want no one to be able to say, as some did of the Holocaust after World War II: “We didn’t know”.
In recent days my advisors and I determined we needed to send a clear, unmistakable message to the Syrian government that such actions were far beyond the pale of our common humanity in the 21st century. We determined a quick, precisely targeted launch of a small number of cruise missiles and other weapons against key military – and I repeat, only military – targets inside Syria would deliver an unmistakable message much more effectively than any condemnation of gas warfare in any more speeches would achieve.
To prepare our national response properly, I asked Congress to support my resolve as this nation’s commander in chief under the Constitution, with Congress’ own solemn commitment that it understood the importance of standing on the right side of history: against the use of chemical warfare on the most vulnerable. Congress is now carrying out its own constitutional and legislative processes, and I urge them to stand with us when they come to the end of their deliberations. It will not be an easy decision, I realize, but I trust that now that they have heard all the arguments and seen all the evidence they will find their way to the right decision. And this will be a decision that will commit Congress to support me in our efforts to prevent any further use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war, should such measures be required.
We did not reach our decision lightly, or quickly, in preparing a limited strike against the Syrian military.
I am determined not to enter a new war for America’s soldiers.
I came into office on January 20, 2009 with an oath to uphold the Constitution, of course, but also to wind down our nation’s unfortunate participation in two long, debilitating struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am pleased to be able to report we have largely achieved that promise made to my fellow citizens and will complete that task by the year 2014. The last thing I want to do now is enter yet another war, this time in a place where we have no objectives other than to seek an end to the horrors of an increasingly brutal, inhumane civil war tearing apart the fabric of an ancient land.
Naturally, we had hoped any such an effort would be urgently, unanimously supported by the United Nations. That the Security Council would endorse our stern opposition to the use of chemical weapons, especially against innocent civilian populations. We saw this as vitally important, given the UN’s own very strong words against the use of such weapons in a second, newer treaty, the Chemical Weapons Convention, a treaty the UN helped bring into being. Although the UN ultimately sent a team of experts to gather proof of the gas attack, this team was never tasked with determining the chain of orders that sent the gas on its way to its deadly purpose.
Unfortunately, we seemed to have reached an impasse in the UN about the larger task ahead. And so we resolved, sadly, reluctantly, that we needed to carry out the hard, painful task ourselves, together with those nations that were able to join with us in this effort. Not everyone has agreed to join, but that does not mean it was wrong for us to try.
But our resolve to do what is right may yet bear fruit, even before we must carry out the awful task itself. In the past 24 hours an informal suggestion made by our secretary of state, John Kerry, while he was in Britain speaking with officials of our close ally, was carried forward by Sergei Lavrov, the foreign minister of the Russian Republic, that the entire Syrian chemical warfare arsenal be handed over to international control so that it could never again be used for such horrific acts.
Now many details must be clarified and developed further before this idea is a tangible fact, not least of which being that the Syrian government must now acknowledge publicly it has such a stockpile. It must disclose where every single one of these weapons are kept. And they must agree, publicly, irrevocably, to surrender complete control over this deadly, dangerous stockpile to total outside supervision.
An international team of experts, backed by the full weight of the world community, will need to be assembled quickly to carry out this difficult – and indeed, dangerous – task. The team will need the right mix of resources and personnel bring such an idea to life. It will not be easy. But you have my pledge that I will work for such an outcome for the sake of the memory of those who have already perished from those deadly gases.
But this will not end that dreadful civil war and all its brutality, or permit the vast army of homeless refugees to return to their homes. For that, the fighting must come to an end. Eventually it will of its own accord, but perhaps not until the living shall envy the dead.
Instead, here is our own new proposal that I offer to my counterpart, President Vladimir Putin of Russia, to the members of the United Nations, and to the parties of the Syrian fighting. Let us begin to seek a way to end the civil war. Let us agree to start an all-parties peace conference that can find a road that leads to peace for Damascus and beyond.
This will not be an easy path to discover. The hatreds and injuries in that ancient land are too visible and exposed. But surely there will need to be an end to the killing eventually. And so I am offering to send vice president Joe Biden to Russia to talk frankly with his counterpart and other Russian leaders to see if we can start this process now, rather than after the killing has claimed thousands more.
To you, my fellow Americans, I look forward to reporting back in the near future on the progress of controlling those chemical weapons, and in beginning the talks than may bring the Syrian civil war to an end. I promise I will give this my very best effort, and that you should expect no less of your government.
As you, my fellow citizens of our great nation, go about your lives this evening and in the days ahead, I hope you will think about – and perhaps offer a prayer for its success – of what this effort would mean to the people of Syria, but also how it may become an example for the people of the entire region and beyond.
Good night and may God bless America. But may he also watch over those who have already sacrificed so much in that historic land of Syria, and may he help them find the peace they so desperately need, for their future, and for all humankind. DM
Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama gestures as he addresses a news conference after a bilateral meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the Chancellery in Berlin June 19, 2013. REUTERS/Thomas Peter
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