HE said the right things about events in Syria, but did Barack Obama say them at the right time and in the right way?
In his better speeches, Obama is more impressive when he speaks than the words themselves are. There was no hint of desperation in the delivery of the speech Tuesday night and only a little political posturing. That in itself is worth noting. Reading between the lines, however, one sees that this is a president trying to extricate himself from his own drawing of a line in the sand that Syria's Bashar al-Assad clearly crossed.
Ponder the timing: One pundit called it a “speech in search of a purpose.” Obama's address to the nation was scheduled ahead of a diplomatic turn of events that almost made the speech an academic exercise. It was supposed to help build support for Obama's call for congressional authorization of military action against Syria.
Instead, it expressed hope that congressional authorization won't be needed, because military action won't be needed, because a Russian thug will convince a Syrian thug to surrender chemical weapons. A Wall Street Journal editorial said that a “weak and inconstant U.S. president has been maneuvered by America's enemies into claiming that a defeat for his Syria policy is really a triumph.” Key word: inconstant.
To his credit, Obama made a passionate case for the world not ignoring the gassing of citizens by a dictator. He cited examples from history and invoked the image of children foaming at the mouth. This was smart because the death of children galvanizes public opinion in ways that “ordinary” atrocities might not.
Those “ordinary” atrocities have been going in Syria for years, but the Aug. 21 deployment of chemical weapons raised the bar. Yet Obama waited until the 10th day of September before making his case. In the interim, Britain rejected military action and American public opinion turned solidly against a military strike.
Political strange bedfellows emerged: Some Republicans who would normally support military action lined up against the proposal. Some Democrats who normally oppose a strike were in favor. Britain said no. France said yes. The administration bungled not just in the timing but in the clumsy way the matter was turned over to Russian President Vladimir Putin, as if he has the moral authority to save the world from Syrian overreach.
The only laugh line in a serious speech was when Obama cited the moral rightness of not taking action against Syria without congressional approval. We could list any number of items on the Obama agenda that should have gone through Congress. But that would take too much space. The polished delivery of the speech and the gravity of its subject aside, this was a spin job to deflect from the fact that Obama doesn't want Congress to vote on Syria because he would likely lose the vote.
What message would that send? No worse than the one the administration has already sent by the Russian roulette fiasco. Said the Journal: “What could be worse for America's standing in the world than a Congress refusing to support a president's proposal for military action against a rogue regime that used WMD? Here's one idea: A U.S. president letting that rogue be rescued from military punishment by the country that has protected the rogue all along.”
In fairness to Obama, presidents shoulder an enormous burden. They will always be blamed for doing too little or doing too much. Just ask George W. Bush, whose bold and constant stances drew so much scorn from Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry.
If Syria gets a pass on the gassing and another more horrendous episode occurs, Obama can say he tried to prevent it but Congress wouldn't let him. But the administration's own incompetence and inconstancy will play a role that this president will likely never acknowledge.