President Barack Obama will deliver one of the most important addresses of his presidency tonight as he explains to Americans why this nation should take military action against Syria. The president has yet to convince a skeptical public and a Congress reluctant to grant him the authority he seeks for a military strike in response to the use of chemical weapons. Here are five questions Obama should answer tonight as he makes his case:
1 Who is responsible for the use of chemical weapons in Syria?
There is no question that chemical weapons were used, and the Obama administration puts the death toll at more than 1,400 from the Aug. 21 attack, including more than 400 children. The videos of innocents killed by the attack are horrific.
Syrian President Bashar Assad continues to deny responsibility for the attack and contends the Obama administration has not presented "a single shred of evidence" that his government used chemical weapons. This should be the easiest question for Obama to answer, and he should share the evidence tonight.
2 What is the national security interest at stake?
Chemical weapons are weapons of mass destruction, and a ban on their use is universally recognized. Obama left himself no wiggle room when he drew a red line against their use in Syria. The president should explain why chemical weapons are different from conventional arms, why he drew the line and why it is important to respond after Syria crossed that line.
Syria's chemical weapons supply has been assembled with help from Iran and Russia. The president should explain how the decision on Syria would affect U.S. relations with those countries, particularly with regard to blocking Iran's efforts to build nuclear weapons.
3 What is the goal of a limited strike?
Obama should explain in better detail what a military response would accomplish beyond enforcing his political statements. A limited strike would not be expected to destroy Syria's supply of chemical weapons. Missile strikes at air bases could disrupt the flow of supplies for weapons to the Assad forces. The president has to define what a successful attack would produce and how it would deter Assad from using chemical weapons again.
4 Why should the United States do this alone?
The United Kingdom has ruled out any involvement in a military strike, as Prime Minister David Cameron lost a vote in Parliament last month. The United Nations is not on board, with the U.N. Security Council unable to endorse a military response because of Russia's certain veto. Obama failed to make much headway in persuading allies to join the United States' effort in his trip to Russia last week. The president should outline why it falls to the United States to respond militarily.
5 What happens if the United States does nothing?
The risks of a limited military strike escalating into something larger appear obvious, given the nation's experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. What needs more clarity is the price of doing nothing and how that could create greater instability in the Middle East. There is the possibility that Syria will be emboldened to use more chemical weapons, and that Iran and North Korea will take less seriously America's verbal warnings against the use of nuclear weapons.