Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Obama Speech: Weak Tea

My first impressions of President Obama’s speech tonight: Was anybody’s mind changed by that speech? I can’t imagine it. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t convincing either. It’s about the best attempt one could imagine to sell an incoherent, bad policy. Early in the speech, the president talked about how we know for a fact […]

My first impressions of President Obama’s speech tonight:

Was anybody’s mind changed by that speech? I can’t imagine it. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t convincing either. It’s about the best attempt one could imagine to sell an incoherent, bad policy.

Early in the speech, the president talked about how we know for a fact that Assad’s military carried out the gas attack. Sorry, but I don’t believe the US government. If I were a betting man, I would lay money on the likelihood that the Assad government did this thing. But after Iraq, I don’t believe what our government says about such things. ABC’s Terry Moran, reporting from Beirut after the speech tonight, said that people in the Middle East simply do not take America at its word when it makes these claims, not after the Iraq debacle. All credit to the prudent judgment of the people of the Middle East.

Second, I still don’t get what is so uniquely horrible about poison gas. The president said that gas weapons kill “indiscriminately.” Well, so do nuclear weapons. So, for that matter, do cruise missiles. I’m not trying to be facetious here; I really don’t understand why it is worse for innocent civilians (or soldiers, for that matter) to die from poison gas attack than from a daisy cutter. Will the Syrian civilians who would inevitably die from US missile attacks on Assad’s chemical weapons stockpiles care how their death came?

The president also claimed that Assad holding chemical weapons is “also a danger to our security.” Why? Because terrorists might get hold of these weapons. That’s weak. If Assad falls, which becomes a greater likelihood if the US attacks, who does Obama think will come into possession of these chemical weapons? Plus, said the president, other nations will think it’s okay to build and stockpile chemical weapons if we don’t act, and Iran will be emboldened to build nuclear weapons, and, and …

The idea that bombing Assad’s chemical weapons stockpiles will make Iran less determined to build nuclear weapons is ludicrous. The Iranians perfectly well understand why their nuclear production facilities have not been bombed yet. Unlike Syria, their country is not within easy reach of US warships. A US attack on Syria’s chemical weaponry will not change this fact.

The president promised that he “will not put American boots on the ground in Syria.” I believe he is sincere in his intention not to do that, but that is a promise he cannot honor. Nobody knows what would happen after an American attack on Syria.

Obama was incoherent and impossible to believe when he said, “Let me make something clear: the United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.” But only yesterday, Secretary of State Kerry said that the proposed US attack would be “unbelievably small.” So, which is it? We are going to launch an attack that will be strong enough to disarm Assad’s chemical weapons program, but small enough to … what? The administration is trying to have it both ways.

Obama went on to say that our Iraq experience shows that we shouldn’t get involved in removing dictators, because that makes us responsible for what happens next. This, he maintains, is why he would limit the US attack on Syria. This is highly disingenuous. Obama ought to know that this country cannot hurl cruise missiles at another country with the aim of degrading the foreign government’s military capacity, and then claim that American hands are clean if rebels overthrow the weakened foreign government. Common sense says that an attack on Assad is aiding Assad’s enemies. Maybe that’s what the president wants to do, and if so, he should make a case for doing so. Claiming that carrying out a non-pinprick military strike against Syria will not involve America in removing the Assad dictatorship is absurd — and the American people quite rightly are skeptical of this.

The president was right, strictly speaking, to say that the Assad regime does not have capability to seriously threaten the US military. Nobody believes it does. But what about the Russians? Syria is Russia’s ally. Is it really worth risking a tangle with the Russians over this? Besides, Assad’s allies could make a lot of mischief for US allies in the region. Would we feel obligated to respond?

The most difficult to believe of all the president’s claims was his pathetic response to the objection that weakening Assad will empower Islamist radicals. Notice one word that Obama did not use tonight in his speech: “Christians.” Many American Christians are waking up to the fact that Syria’s native Christian population would face slaughter or exile if the rebels win, given that the strongest rebel groups are the most religiously militant. The president claimed, without a shred of argumentation, that al-Qaeda would gain strength if the US did not bomb Assad. This is not an argument; this is an assertion, and a highly dubious one at that. It amounts to, “If we don’t attack Syria, the terrorists will win.”

Near the end, the president said that he agrees that America should not be the world’s policeman — then said, in effect, “But we have to be.” He said, “For nearly seven decades, the United States has been the anchor of global security.” This has made the world a better place, he said. Maybe so, maybe not, but that does not answer the reasonable question of why it is incumbent on the United States to commit an act of war against a country that does not directly threaten it, when only a handful of other nations support the proposed attack, and no others will spend their treasure, or put their soldiers and sailors at risk, doing so.

This was a claim of American exceptionalism that ignored the plain facts that over a decade of war has degraded America’s military capacity to uphold that international order, and that same war has undermined America’s moral standing to do so. When the president, addressing the Right, asked how we reconcile our “commitment to US military might” with not acting in the face of the poison gas atrocity, the answer is that experience has taught us that America’s capacity to change the behavior of the world through military power is far more limited than we thought. A commitment to strengthening the military could very well require not using the military so liberally, especially not after it has been stretched to the limit fighting a war in Iraq that we did not need to fight, and continuing a war in Afghanistan far beyond any reasonable hope that that godforsaken backwater will be able to govern itself in a civilized way.

The president ended his remarks by saying that we should undertake “modest effort and risk” to strike Syria for using chemical weapons because, well, we’re America, and that’s what we do: think about the children. The president said:

Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong.  But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act.  That’s what makes America different.  That’s what makes us exceptional.  With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth.

“America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one,” he added. Actually, he wasn’t the president who said that, but how, exactly, does the conclusion of tonight’s Obama speech significantly differ from the idealistic impulse behind the Bush line?

Not one word tonight about Christians in Syria. Not one.

UPDATE:  Julia Ioffe, who apparently favored a strike on Syria, is furious at how the Obama administration got checkmated by Putin and its own incompetence. She wrote this before the Obama speech, but it’s a pretty definitive autopsy of how Team Obama, especially John Kerry, bungled this whole thing. Excerpt:

Obama, on the other hand, found himself constantly check-mated, either by his own hand, or, this time, by Kerry’s. First, he drew a red line on chemical weapons, seemingly by accident. Then, he all but ignored chemical weapons use by Assad until the evidence forced itself on the world. Then he agonized on whether to act, while Dempsey and the Pentagon rolled him, leaking their military plans to anyone who would listen, “probably,” said one insider, “because they didn’t want to act.” Then, he talked about how limited the strikes would be, all while Assad moved his men and his guns into residential areas and the Russians moved their ships in. Then, out of nowhere, he decided to take it to Congress. “The president says that he’s going to launch strikes and then, suddenly, he’s going to Congress. It’s probably one of the more incredible things I’ve ever seen,” McCain told me. “We were all dumbfounded,” said another Senate staffer.

Then came the persuasion of Congress, a legislative body that can’t even pass a farm bill, or a gun-control measure favored by a crushing majority of the American people. The president didn’t call Congress back, so instead, congressmen and senators got spend nearly two weeks marinating not in the intelligence, but in the vehement opposition of their constituents. Those that were in town—like the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—were rushed through the process of putting together a resolution before they even heard the classified briefing. Others, relative moderates like Republicans Saxby Chambliss and Kelly Ayotte who would normally support such a measure, complained that the briefings were vague and short on specifics.

Obama, meanwhile, took off for Sweden, and, as the town halls roiled with anger, put off his address to the country for the following week. While abroad, he managed to further humiliate himself in the eyes of Putin, who already sees him as weak. Obama, having just called off his bilateral summit with Putin because Russia granted asylum to Edward Snowden, went ahead and met with Putin anyway. It was a pointless meeting—”We both stuck to our guns,” Putin said afterwards—but in Russia, the message was unmistakable: Putin is stronger, and Putin won.

Meanwhile, back home, the nays fell into place and the yeahs became fewer and fewer, and the talk in Washington was about what Obama will do if Congress says no? Or if the Senate says yes but the House says no? And just when it couldn’t get any more discombobulated, Kerry opened the door to a nonsense Russian diplomatic solution, just three days after Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said publicly it would be naive to count on Russia diplomatically.

I, of course, am very happy that this happened, and Ioffe is not. But I fail to see how she’s off the mark in her analysis.