THE BLOG
09/10/2013 10:31 am ET Updated Nov 10, 2013

President Obama Must Address Diplomacy Tonight

Americans overwhelmingly oppose bombing Syria.

Last night, thousands of people attended local vigils across the nation asking Congress to oppose war with Syria. A survey completed by 57,000 Progressive Change Campaign Committee members showed 73 percent-to-18 percent opposition to bombing Syria among the progressive base. Polls show most Americans agree.

But that does not mean Americans want to "do nothing" about the actions of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Most Americans, including 89 percent of our progressive membership, want to do something. But war must be the option of last resort -- and only in pursuit of a strategic goal. Diplomacy must be the default.

Tonight, President Obama has the burden of proving that America has a concrete goal in Syria and that declaring war is the only way to achieve that goal.

Specifically, it's his burden to prove that diplomacy has been tried -- including with nations that have more leverage over Syria than we do -- and that all diplomatic options have been exhausted.

Unfortunately, it appears the president will attempt to make a less-than-thorough case to Americans.

Repeatedly, the White House has restated the problem without making the case for their solution. The latest briefings to Congress apparently entail showing videos of actions that everyone agrees are horrific. White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough boasted, "Talking to members of Congress... nobody is rebutting the intelligence." But that doesn't bolster the case for war as the solution -- it just shows that everyone agrees on the problem. That's not news.

In his original Rose Garden announcement on Syria, President Obama asked "if we really do want to turn away from taking appropriate action in the face of such an unspeakable outrage?" No, most Americans welcome appropriate action. In fact, the debate should be about what constitutes appropriate action versus inappropriate action.

But the president and his spokespeople consistently present a false choice between dropping bombs and "doing nothing." By not even acknowledging that there are multiple options for action, including diplomatic options, the White House gives an impression eerily similar to the Bush-Cheney administration in the lead-up to Iraq: that they are more intent on selling Americans on war than presenting us with an honest assessment of the situation.

President Obama says the United Nations Security Council is "paralyzed." This defeatist attitude is the same one he often takes toward Republican filibusters in the Senate -- giving up a fight before forcing the opposition to argue their unpopular position under the intense heat of the public spotlight.

But we've learned that obstructionists will cave when they are forced to own their unpopular positions in public -- such as when Republican senators caved after trying to defend tax cuts for the rich and cutting off unemployment benefits.

If the United States forced a vote in the Security Council on measures that were painful to Assad, but short of war -- as has been done many times in the past against bad actors -- Russia and China might block it at first. But they would be isolated and America would be leading the rest of the world in defense of international norms -- a stark contrast to our current stance that isolates America and puts Russia and China in the majority of nations that oppose our actions.

Yesterday's proposal by Russia for the international community to seize and destroy Syrian chemical weapons is proof that diplomatic options exist beyond those that have been previously acknowledged by the White House. It's proof that diplomacy is possible with those who have leverage over Syria. And it's proof that Russia is trying to get ahead of the curve and avoid being isolated.

White House spokesman Ben Rhodes says the White House will "take a hard look" at this diplomatic proposal, but that Congress authorizing war is "all the more important" in order to get Syria to agree. By Rhodes' logic, Congress should give the president standing authority to attack all nations with whom we engage in diplomacy to ensure a visible stick. The truth is that the world knows military force is an option Congress can authorize later -- if it's a last resort in pursuit of a strategic goal.

But diplomacy is an option too -- one that must come first and that the president carries the burden of addressing tonight. If he merely restates the problem and calls for war as the only solution, he will deserve a defeat by the people's representatives in Congress.

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