President Obama’s address tonight was underwhelming, and it told us virtually nothing that we didn’t already know. The Congressional vote on authorizing the use of force against Syria will be delayed, but this wasn’t news by the time Obama gave the speech. The U.S. is considering the Russian proposal to have Syria give up its chemical weapons, but the section of the speech on this was obviously tacked on as an afterthought. Some parts of the speech were insulting in their blatant revisionism of Obama’s own record. Obama doesn’t “think we should remove another dictator with force,” except that he did believe that two years ago in Libya. He thinks that toppling another government “makes us responsible for all that comes next,” but that has also obviously not been his view of U.S. responsibilities in Libya.
As a summary of the exceptionally weak administration case, it successfully conveyed the message that Obama’s officials have been delivering for the last few weeks, but it suffered from all the flaws that have made the administration’s arguments so unpersuasive. While it sought to placate critics with nods to the concerns of different groups of Americans, it avoided the most serious objections to the specific actions the administration wants to take. Obama dismissed the concern that attacking Syria could provoke retaliation by saying that any “other retaliation they might seek is in line with threats that we face every day,” but this will hardly make Americans less concerned about the potential attacks that the U.S. may be inviting through military action. He insisted that the proposed attack would be “a targeted strike to achieve a clear objective,” but failed to explain how this strike would actually achieve the objective of “deterring the use of chemical weapons” or outline what the U.S. was prepared to do if it didn’t.
No one worried that the U.S. is acting as the “world’s policeman” would be reassured by what Obama said. It’s impossible to take seriously Obama’s claim that he doesn’t think “world’s policeman” is the proper U.S. role when he is delivering a speech defending the necessity of enforcing an international norm with military action. He recycled several of his officials’ worst fear-mongering arguments about proliferation, Iran, and terrorism, but these have not improved through repeated assertion. All in all, this was a speech that Obama didn’t need to give, and he said nothing that would persuade anyone not already supportive of his policy.