President Barack Obama's Tuesday evening speech explaining his plans for a military strike against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, though deftly delivered, will not put to rest the doubts that a large majority of Americans have about what the president aims to achieve with what he insisted would be a limited, targeted operation.
Mr. Obama depicted with graphic, moving words the agonizing ways in which the Syrians who were gassed died. His intent in doing so was to mobilize the nation behind his plan by appealing to our ideals and to our humanity.
But the president cannot escape the contradictions inherent in his case.
Motivated by the chemical attacks of August 21, President Obama now contemplates a momentous step -- one that could have many unintended and undesirable consequences, both in and around Syria. But Assad has so far killed over 100,000 people with other weapons that are no less indiscriminate and have, in consequence, led to horrific suffering and death among civilians.
Killing people with chemical weapons, the president asserted in his speech, falls into a different category altogether -- perhaps so. But he did not explain why, even though this distinction is the basis for the attack for which he seeks political support.
Not only has Mr. Obama not intervened militarily in Syria despite the massive death toll, but two years into the war he has yet to deliver meaningful quantities of arms to the Syrian rebels.
There are two main reasons for the president's caution.
The first is that war-weary Americans don't want to run the risk of entrapment in another protracted conflict a la Iraq and Afghanistan. In his speech Obama stressed that what he planned to do in Syria would not place the United States on a slippery slope.
But a limited military attack would still leave Assad with the capacity to kill large numbers of people using means other than chemical weapons.
The second reason for the president's cautious policy toward Syria over the past two years is that among Assad's strongest opponents are hardline Islamists, some with ties to al-Qaeda connections.
But a limited strike, one that Mr. Obama has said is not intended to change the military balance within Syria, won't boost the fortunes of the moderates the administration favors.
In other words, the sort of strike he has in mind won't end Syria's carnage or the dynamics of the war. So what about those ideals and the compassion that the president appealed to Tuesday evening?