Defense & National Security

Obama’s Syria speech: the mouse that roared

Obama's Syria speech: the mouse that roared

What was Barack Obama doing in front of those cameras for fifteen minutes on Tuesday night?  His speech was rewritten so many times that they’re still replacing “Backspace” keys on laptops all over the White House.  A lot of the stuff about the urgent necessity to launch a war of choice in Syria – something more than “pinpricks,” but still “modest,” as Obama labored comically to explain – was still packed into the first half of the presentation, but then came the expected head-spinning twist where Obama tried to take credit for his global humiliation at the hands of the Russians.

It’s funny how the Administration is all over the place on Syria policy, with everyone shooting from the hip and saying different things to different audiences, but the entire Democrat Party – plus its media auxiliaries – was quickly brought into tight formation on the peace plan talking points, singing in unison that Obama’s “strength” and the “threat of military action” brought Assad to the table, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin is basically following a plan Obama secretly hashed out with him last week.  (That would be back when the U.S. media was writing absurd articles about how Putin was “intimidated” by Obama’s commanding body language at their summit meeting.)

When it comes to protecting Obama’s domestic political capital and spinning his failures in the media, the Democrats become the Spartans at Thermopylae, but when they’re responding to an international crisis, they’re F Troop.  Dana Milbank puts it well at the Washington Post:

At 9 p.m. Tuesday, President Obama, in his address to the nation, said that he had “asked the leaders of Congress to postpone a vote to authorize the use of force.”

This contradicted what his secretary of state, John Kerry, had said in testimony to Congress just 11 hours earlier. “We’re not asking Congress not to vote,” Kerry told the House Armed Services Committee. “I’m not asking [for] delay,” he added later.

Kerry can be forgiven for being at odds with the president. The president, in the space of his 16-minute address, was often at odds with himself. He spent the first 12 minutes arguing for the merits of striking Syria — and then delivered the news that he was putting military action on hold.

He promised that it would be “a limited strike” without troops on the ground or a long air campaign, yet he argued that it was the sort of blow that “no other nation can deliver.” He argued that “we should not be the world’s policeman” while also saying that because of our “belief in freedom and dignity for all people,” we cannot “look the other way.” He asserted that what Bashar al-Assad did is “a danger to our security” while also saying that “the Assad regime does not have the ability to seriously threaten our military.”

Milbank goes on to give the President and his team some credit for trying to “thread a needle” and “outline a highly nuanced and frequently shifting policy.”  But Obama is only in this nuanced needle-threading position because he put himself there.  If he’d put together his foreign policy with the kind of swift, disciplined effort that he’s applying to the post-fiasco spin wars, he wouldn’t be in this mess.

The time to rally public and political support was over a year ago, before he made the offhand, unscripted “red line” threat that almost propelled us into a quagmire before Secretary of State John Kerry’s offhand, unscripted comments gave the Russians an opening to drag the Administration back.  It is Obama’s arrogance that created this mess.  A better President would have been firmly, steadily building public support, domestic political consensus, and international unity against the day chemical weapons were deployed in Syria, and would have foreseen the high probability that responsibility for the attack would be difficult to pin down with forensic precision.  To this day, the primary evidence Obama has to offer for Assad’s culpability is his repeated assertion that Assad is culpable.

Likewise, his argument 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” boils down to “because I said so,” since no one really thinks the Assad regime is itching to attack American interests, but some of the people itching to take possession of his chemical weapons have just such an itch.  The national security interest of the United States didn’t count for a hill of beans when Obama was trying to keep his re-election campaign alive after September 11, 2012.  And the gassing of children didn’t trouble Obama when it was time to consider military action against noted chemical-weapons aficionado Saddam Hussein.  Funny how he had time to mention World War I’s mustard gas and Hitler’s Zyklon-B last night, but didn’t have a word to say about the far more recent and relevant atrocities of Saddam.

If Obama was really serious about the urgent threat of Bashar Assad, he’d be talking about regime change, not modest pinprick-plus punitive military strikes explicitly designed not to topple the regime.  (How can you be certain that a punitive action powerful enough to make a dictator embroiled in a bloody civil war feel serious pain won’t also be enough to topple him?)  And Obama certainly wouldn’t be willing to put his urgent Syrian crusade on hold because the Assad regime wants to talk about giving up its WMD – a rather dubious process that would take over a decade under the best of circumstances, let alone a savage civil war in which Assad’s air force is bombing targets he can see from his bedroom window.  If Obama really meant what he said in the first half of his Tuesday night address, he would have used the second half to explain why the Russian “peace plan” is a farce, instead of making a pathetic attempt to claim partial credit for it.  Was the gassing of all those Syrian children an intolerable outrage, or not?

If Obama had been calling for regime change all along, the Russians wouldn’t have been able to eat his Cheerios by turning a sarcastic comment from blithering idiot John Kerry into a big U.N peace initiative.  And if Obama hadn’t felt it necessary to draw a chemical weapons “red line” to explain why the murder of thousands of Syrians with conventional weapons didn’t move him to action, there would have been no Cheerios for the Russians to eat.  Nothing he could say in a quarter-hour of prime-time TV was going to change the global situation, so he used the opportunity to throw some talking points to his supporters: The threat of Obama’s “modest” military strikes brought Assad to the bargaining table!  It’s all Congress’ fault for refusing to support our Nobel Peace Prize-winning warrior-President!

If that’s good enough to shore up his poll numbers, and give his supporters something to say on the Sunday talk shows, Obama’s objectives have been met.  If U.N. inspectors are still hauling barrels of sarin gas out of Damascus in 2023, then Vladimir Putin’s objectives have been met.  And if Bashar Assad is around to sign the receipts for those confiscated weapons, then his objectives have been met.  With enough cynicism, you can see it as a win-win-win proposition.  Thanks to Barack Obama’s “leadership,” we live in a very cynical age.

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