The Ideal Speech? Obama’s Extraordinary Opportunity

Jerry Casagrande is a writer focusing on issues about the environment and poverty. He lives in Northern Virginia with his wife and three children.

GUEST COLUMN by Jerry Casagrande

President Obama has an enormous decision to make regarding our country’s response to the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons that killed 1429 innocent citizens on August 21. I hope President Obama will have the courage to break from our militaristic past and forge a new future. With public opinion polls and Congressional opinions moving against any form of strike, this may be an excellent opportunity for genuine change.

Although the evidence is still being debated, the Obama Administration says that more than 1400 Syrians died painfully at the hands of what one could only call a war criminal, if the claim is true. And yet, around the world that same number of children die every four hours from malnutrition.

Even in our politically divided country, we can all agree that these deaths — from hunger and from chemical weaponry — are tragic and unnecessary. So here is what I ask President Obama to say in his speech this week:

My fellow Americans, I have looked at the options presented to me by my advisors on how to deal with the Syrian tragedy. I have determined two things:


First, that we have very little power to reduce violence in Syria without fully involving ourselves in a war there. And, of course, involving ourselves in a war will greatly increase the violence before it reduces it.


Second, as have others before me, I have reached the conclusion that violence simply begets more violence. Imagine if you will that we attack Syria in retaliation for its chemical weapons attack. We will kill men and women who are working at weapons warehouses or factories. These men and women will have children who we will orphan. If our missiles go astray, we may kill children, or the elderly. We will not kill President Bashar Assad, who I believe is most responsible for the 1429 deaths. And, he will use our attack to instigate his own people against us. There will inevitably be more violence and more deaths as a result of our actions. I have no doubt of this.


And, so I am embarking our country on a new path. In honor of the 1429 innocents who died on August 21 in Syria, we will spend the same amount of money that a retaliatory attack would cost — let’s call it $50 million — to save thousands, or tens of thousands, elsewhere. We will meet President Assad’s violence with an equal or greater measure of compassion towards the world’s least advantaged people.


Children are hungry and dying because of malnutrition in Sub-Saharan Africa, in India and Bangladesh, in Mongolia. In places that are at peace and where we can save lives without endangering American lives or creating a backlash of further violence.


What will Assad do in response? I don’t know. He might attack people with chemical weapons. In which case, we will mourn their deaths and respond with equal strength to save even more of the world’s poorest from a premature death. Each attack Assad makes, we will respond with kindness to the world’s most vulnerable citizens.

Or he may, eventually, be embarrassed and pressured into reducing his own violence. He might, like the South Africans who dismantled Apartheid after years of the world’s disdain, relent and rejoin the world community of peaceful nations.


I don’t know. But I do know this: Our action will save destitute children from death from malnutrition and it will lift up the name and reputation of these great United States as not just the most powerful country on earth, but also the most compassionate.

Tonight, I am directing my staff to prepare a list of sites where we can provide immediate assistance — to improve water access, improve agricultural yields, improve long-term access to food — to save the lives of thousands of children.


President Assad, the people you have killed have not died in vain. The United States honors their deaths by reaching out to save others from the death sentence of poverty and hunger. 

Some may say that this approach has us turning our backs on the Syrians. But, both an attack on Syria and a non-response to Assad’s alleged chemical weapons use has us turning our backs on the children dying of hunger. We live in a world of limited resources. Let us use our resources where we can to peacefully save lives rather than to violently act out in ways that may only increase the death toll.

Others with a practical bent will argue that this approach can’t happen because it requires us to turn our backs on the military-industrial-political complex, that lives off the teat of the Pentagon and that pays dividends to America’s wealthiest and most influential.

But, what if that complex can be co-opted ? What if there are profits and jobs to be had doing the good work of saving lives rather than the work of taking lives in the name of peace? What if contracts for building hospitals, providing farm equipment, building wells and cisterns, are open to the likes of Lockheed Martin, McDonnell Douglass, or a host of other defense industry corporations?

And, what if our good men and women of the service are sent to build rather than to destroy? Sent to do so in places that are already peaceful? They would not lose a paycheck. And one wonders, would they return from those places with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? Or would they return feeling fulfilled?

America does not want another war. And, we really do not even want an attack for fear of the war it may lead to. Now is the time to do real good in the face of extraordinary violence.

I hope the President is wise enough to see his opportunity and brave enough to take advantage of it.

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