With the tide of public opinion turning decidedly against him, and support waning on both sides of Capitol Hill, President Obama delivered a primetime White House address to the nation this evening on the subject of Syria. Video is below, followed by some scatter-shot analysis:
A few thoughts:
(1) In the the initial -- and most substantial -- portion of his speech, Obama built a relatively coherent case for intervention against the Assad regime. He cited the humanitarian catastrophe being visited upon the Syrian people, raised international norms on WMDs, and appealed to Americans' sense of right and wrong. Despite its well-crafted prose delivered authoritatively, this segment of the speech contained almost nothing new. The American people have heard this case, and have overwhelmingly rejected a military strike. Indeed, in this week's polling, the public openly concedes Assad's atrocities, yet still rejects the prospect of a military response.
(2) Obama asserted his authority to take action without Congress, but said that as the leader of a Constitutional republic, he thought it was important to consult the legislative branch before ordering a strike. Why this calculus did not apply to his Libyan adventure is unclear, especially in light of this episode.
(3) After erecting a case against Assad as one of history's greatest monsters, invoking the Holocaust, and advocating "targeted" military action to stop the killing, Obama announced the indefinitely postponement of Congressional votes -- a truly glaring disconnect. He also described Assad's August gas attack as the game changer vis-a-vis US intervention. Why didn't April's violations of his "red line" trigger the current crisis? What about the last two years of civil war, which have witnessed the slaughter of more than 100,000 Syrians? Much of Obama's pitch was humanitarian. Should Americans care about the difference between a child bombed, and a child gassed?
(4) The president served up a revisionist account of how the new Russian diplomatic "plan" came into existence, then conditionally embraced it He said that the proposal presents an opportunity to rid Assad of his chemical weapons without resorting to warfare. How, exactly, this task would be carried out in a war-torn basket case of a country -- even if everyone plays along as hoped -- went unaddressed. It's as if Obama took his previously-prepared "we must attack Syria" speech, and dropped a "pause" clause into the middle of it, in a nod to Russia's substantively useless (but politically useful) diplomatic "solution."
(5) This attempt at "bipartisan" appeal was...odd:
And so to my friends on the right, I ask you to reconcile your commitment to America’s military might with the 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.
(6) Overall, I'd be surprised if the president moved the needle very much, either in Congress or with the public. The authorization votes have been put off, and may never happen. The charade of Syrian disarmament and treaty signing may move forward. The clear sense is that this White House simply wants the Syria issue to go away, and they are hoping that the accidental Kerry/Putin gambit will do the trick. The administration's Syria posture has been astoundingly incoherent for months, and has descended into near parody this week. Tonight's speech was superficially better than the clown car act we've seen in recent days, but its contradictions and moral confusion lurked just below the surface. I'll leave you with a few trenchant observations on Twitter during the address:
Once you compare this crime to the Holocaust, aren't you left with no choice but to remove the perpetrator?— Jeffrey Goldberg (@JeffreyGoldberg) September 11, 2013
Shorter Obama: We must act. Well, not right now, let's see what happens,— Josh Rogin (@joshrogin) September 11, 2013
Strange that Obama holds Syria strike up as smaller operation than Libya, since he's seeking congressional authority now but didn't then— Jon Ward (@jonward11) September 11, 2013
Srsly: Republicans, you love blowing things up, so let me bomb stuff! And people on the left, you guys care about dead children, so c'mon.— Megan McArdle (@asymmetricinfo) September 11, 2013
Did the president move you, one way or the other?