For a few minutes President Obama gave the speech on Syria that he should have made weeks if not years ago. In opening his address to the American people Tuesday night, he outlined a powerful case for action on Syria where the Assad regime has slaughtered over a hundred thousand people. He described Assad’s use of chemical weapons that resulted in the brutal deaths of a thousand victims including hundreds of children and even put this atrocity in the context of the Nazi use of poison gas. He explained why this is a threat not only to the people of Syria but also to the security of the entire Middle East and the United States.
But having done so, he then proceeded to explain why he would do nothing about any of it.
Of course, Obama claims that his embrace of Russia’s proposal to supervise the surrender of Syria’s chemical weapons rather than strike Assad’s forces is merely a diplomatic endeavor that will put Damascus to the test. But by asking Congress to postpone a vote on authorizing the use of force against Syria, he has effectively assured Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers that they’ve won. Having described the Syrian regime as having gone beyond the pale, he has now ensured that not only will Assad survive a civil war that he is already winning, but he told the victims of the dictator that, for all of his compassionate rhetoric, he thinks their suffering is irrelevant.
In short, while posing—as he habitually does—as the only adult in the room scolding critics of his Syria policy on both the right and the left, his contradictions and weakness made their critiques look smart. It’s not just that his claim that diplomacy will succeed because of a “credible threat” of U.S. force that we all know was not credible is a flat-out lie. Having already demonstrated incompetence on a historic scale in flubbing this crisis, no speech could have retrieved the situation and restored Obama’s credibility. But by encapsulating all the inconsistencies of his foreign policy in 15 minutes of rhetoric, Obama sealed his reputation as the most feckless American leader since Jimmy Carter.
The problem with this speech is that once the president latched onto the Russian ruse—which, as our Max Boot pointed out, has no chance of success—it made his appeal to Congress moot. At that point the address, which was seen when it was announced as a last-ditch attempt to rally a recalcitrant Congress behind a strike on Syria, should have been canceled. Since that would have caused the president more embarrassment than he was prepared to live with, he went ahead with the talk to the American people and asked his speechwriters to turn on a dime and give him some new talking points. But the final result of their labors was obviously a pastiche of drafts, with the opening section and part of the conclusion a remnant of an earlier impassioned plea for action.
We may never know which of the ghosts working in the West Wing came up with the line about the U.S. military not doing “pinpricks” in response to criticisms that the “incredibly small” attack promised by Secretary of State John Kerry wasn’t enough. But it will be enough to give late-night comedians plenty of fodder. But the problem here is that by grasping onto what we all know is merely a diplomatic fig leaf to excuse inaction, his assurances convinced neither right-wing nor left-wing isolationists that there was any reason to give him their support. Indeed, in the face of such feckless leadership, even internationalists who have backed his call for a strike have good reason to bail on the president. The only people who should be applauding this address are Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers since Obama’s backing down means the dictator has been assured of victory in the Syrian civil war.
But the point here is that just like his last-minute refusal to act on his own authority and asking Congress for permission to strike, the speech made a case for action while going on to say the president would not act. If there is a precedent for a president taking prime time to tell the American people that something should happen but that it won’t, I’m not aware of it. This was a dreadful show by the president. If there was any doubt that he is a lame duck, it was erased in those 15 minutes.