How was President Obama’s latest Syria speech for you?
Here it is. Points to note.
He attempts to make the case that by failing to act against the use of CW in Syria now new risks for us will appear down the line:
If we fail to act, the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons. As the ban against these weapons erodes, other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas, and using them. Over time, our troops would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield. And it could be easier for terrorist organizations to obtain these weapons, and to use them to attack civilians.
If fighting spills beyond Syria’s borders, these weapons could threaten allies like Turkey, Jordan, and Israel. And a failure to stand against the use of chemical weapons would weaken prohibitions against other weapons of mass destruction, and embolden Assad’s ally, Iran — which must decide whether to ignore international law by building a nuclear weapon, or to take a more peaceful path.
This is not a world we should accept. This is what’s at stake
Hence, action is needed:
… after careful deliberation, I determined that it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike. The purpose of this strike would be to deter Assad from using chemical weapons, to degrade his regime’s ability to use them, and to make clear to the world that we will not tolerate their use.
The three aims of the military strike are in fact very different. ‘Degrading’ some facilities is one thing. Deterring Assad from future use is much less clear-cut: what if a desperate Assad adopts a ‘the worse the better’ strategy, hoping to drag the USA into a prolonged intervention? As for making clear to the world that the USA will not tolerate the use of CW, the current self-inflicted diplomatic mess and inconsistent messages are a poor way to set about that.
President Obama then uses a wily speechmaking trick, namely posing and answering supposed tough questions about his policy. Remember how David Cameron did something similar to explain the looming intervention in Libya? As I noted then, this rhetorical trick sounds good. It works psychologically. It subtly flatters the listener: “Yes, that’s a good question, and I’m glad our leader is considering it – what’s the answer?”. However, it is a trick, aimed at answering questions that can be answered but drawing attention away from much harder questions that maybe are the key ones.
He also includes words aimed at Right and Left, aiming to present himself as a fair and reasoned compromiser:
And so, to my friends on the right, I ask you to reconcile your commitment to America’s military might with a failure to act when a cause is so plainly just. To my friends on the left, I ask you to reconcile your belief in freedom and dignity for all people with those images of children writhing in pain, and going still on a cold hospital floor. For sometimes resolutions and statements of condemnation are simply not enough.
Indeed, I’d ask every member of Congress, and those of you watching at home tonight, to view those videos of the attack, and then ask: What kind of world will we live in if the United States of America sees a dictator brazenly violate international law with poison gas, and we choose to look the other way?
The policy heart of the speech was, of course, the fact that the President was dropping an immediate threat of military action to explore a diplomatic outcome. This amounted to a rapid retreat from looming ignominious defeat in Congress along a wobbly bridge offered to him by V Putin, namely a proposal (taking up the John Kerry gaffe yesterday in London) to bring Syria’s CW stocks under proper international control.
This seems superficially reasonable. Until you realise that it just can’t be done in practice in Syria’s conditions. And that even attempting it requires Western capitals to start investing in the Assad regime and its wicked processes, a point made in my new PunditWire piece:
Not only that. As we have immediately seen, the Russians will duck and weave to avoid any binding UN resolution that leaves open any option for the use of force if Syria fails to comply. So, the problem simply hops to another layer. Can Washington with London and France manoeuvre Moscow (and Beijing) into vetoing a resolution that is tough enough to matter? And if so, aren’t we just where we were, but with political and diplomatic momentum dissipated?
The real risk in President Obama’s new approach is this. The protracted painstaking negotiation needed to set up a credible international monitoring and destruction regime for Syria’s CW stocks will give Assad and his state apparatus a massive boost of renewed confidence and legitimacy. Before long Washington may find itself locked on to implicitly or even explicitly supporting Assad in his civil war as the best chance to get some sort of internationally agreed CW destruction programme delivered in Syria.
That won’t be a victory for restrained US diplomacy. It will be a dramatic success for Vladimir Putin and his strident anti-Western noises. The human and political cost in Syria and beyond of Assad staying in power will grow and grow. No speech, however subtle and well-crafted, will hide that disaster.
All in all, a smooth and in many ways clever Obama performance that blandly glosses over the Administration’s appalling dithering of recent days and weeks, but merely kicks the policy can a little way down the road.
Before the speech was delivered, veteran speechwriter Peggy Noonan gave a brilliant and perceptive insight into what it was likely to contain:
So what will he say? Some guesses.
He will not really be trying to “convince the public.” He will be trying to move the needle a little, which will comfort those who want to say he retains a matchless ability to move the masses. It will make him feel better. And it will send the world the message: Hey, this isn’t a complete disaster. The U.S. president still has some juice, and that juice can still allow him to surprise you, so watch it.
He will attempt to be morally compelling and rhetorically memorable. He will probably, like Susan Rice yesterday, attempt to paint a graphic portrait of what chemical weapons do—the children in their shrouds, the suffering parents, what such deaths look like and are. This is not meaningless: the world must be reminded what weapons of mass destruction are, and what the indifference of the world foretells.
He will claim the moral high ground. He will temporarily reserve the use of force and welcome recent diplomatic efforts. He will suggest it was his threat of force that forced a possible diplomatic solution. His people will be all over the airwaves saying it was his deft leadership and steely-eyed threat to use force that allowed for a diplomatic break.
The real purpose of the speech will be to lay the predicate for a retrospective judgment of journalists and, later, historians. He was the president who warned the world and almost went—but didn’t go—to war to make a point that needed making…
… Then get ready for the spin job of all spin jobs. It’s already begun: the White House is beginning to repeat that a diplomatic solution only came because the president threatened force. That is going to be followed by something that will grate on Republicans, conservatives, and foreign-policy journalists and professionals. But many Democrats will find it sweet, and some in the political press will go for it, if for no other reason than it’s a new story line.
It is that Syria was not a self-made mess, an example of historic incompetence. It was Obama’s Cuban Missile Crisis—high-stakes, eyeball-to-eyeball, with weapons of mass destruction and an implacable foe. The steady waiting it out, the inner anguish, the idea that crosses the Telex that seems to soften the situation. A cool, calibrated, chancy decision to go with the idea, to make a measured diplomatic concession. In the end it got us through the crisis.
Really, they’re going to say this. And only in part because this White House is full of people who know nothing—really nothing—about history. They’ve only seen movies…
Peggy got right most of this. Impressive. She’s right. This speech should manage to keep a lid on the issue until the next crisis blows up.
The truly ghastly aspect of the Syrian crisis is the possibility that the cynical immoral Russian position may turn out to be the best one available. What if the Assad regime is the best we can get in Syria without the whole country disintegrating?
Underlying the dismal Western policy uncertainty on Syria that we have seen in recent days is that lurking worry, or at least the thought that blowing up Assad assets may well make things worse rather than better. And that ‘better’ in Syria now may be neither identifiable or obtainable.