In show biz it’s every star’s nightmare – it’s been weeks of hype from the irritatingly expensive publicity team, and lots of good press with a nice buzz about the upcoming breakthrough performance, and then the damned opening act is too wonderful – what they call a tough act to follow. It might be some band no one ever heard of – say the just-formed Rolling Stones opening for Glenn Campbell or something – but that doesn’t matter. There you are on stage, doing your thing, and doing it magnificently, but no one cares. Everyone has moved on to the Next Thing. Still, the show must go on, like Obama’s speech on Syria.
This was going to be the big speech where he won over the public, and the Congress, somehow convincing everyone we should lob a few cruise missiles into Syria, to teach that Assad fellow a lesson or two – no one can use chemical weapons, even on his own people, and especially on civilian women and children. Fine, but the American people wanted none of that. Congress wanted none of that. Obama knew this, but it was time to ask for authorization for those airstrikes, authorization he knew was necessary, because there’s no direct threat to America in this case, unless you stretch things a bit. With the Brits deciding they’d rather not join us in bombing Syria, and Congress saying don’t do it, or that bombing’s not enough, depending on who you ask, and with the American people more than a little wary of the whole idea, this was going to be a hard sell – but Obama had made amazing speeches before, like when he had to explain his history with Jeremiah Wright, that had turned things around. This could be one of those speeches, although no one saw how he could pull it off this time. Still, as American had learned, the guy is a rock star of sorts – he could turn things around. That was possible.
Then it wasn’t possible. Obama had been upstaged. John Kerry, the head of his publicity team, responsible for the appropriate buzz and hype, made what seemed like an off-the-cuff statement that Assad could avoid those airstrikes if he gave up all his chemical weapons. Assad could declare them all, let some third party come in and collect them and then destroy them – all of them – and then have Syria sign the appropriate treaties renouncing such things, as almost every other nation has. Kerry added that such a thing was impossible. Assad would never do that. Then the State Department issued a statement saying that Kerry has been speaking rhetorically – just offering an absurd hypothetical, to show why we had to send in our impressive death from the sky. It was hype for Obama’s upcoming speech. The absurd doesn’t happen.
Then the absurd happened. Russia said they liked the idea. They’d pressure Syria to do what Kerry had suggested, and the morning of Obama’s big speech, Syria surprised everyone:
Nearly buried in the diplomatic din over Syria, the country’s foreign minister acknowledged for the first time on Tuesday that the Syrian government possessed chemical arms, something it had never admitted before, and declared that the country aimed to become a signatory to the international convention banning the weapons.
The oblique admission by the foreign minister, Walid Moallem, came as he suggested that President Bashar al-Assad’s government was ready to accept a deal advanced by Russia, Syria’s most powerful ally, to place the weapons under international supervision to avoid a threatened American military strike.
“We are ready to reveal the locations of the chemical weapon sites and to stop producing chemical weapons and make these sites available for inspection by representatives of Russia, other countries and the United Nations,” Mr. Moallem said in a statement, which he read on Al Mayadeen, a Lebanese television station that leans in favor of the Syrian government.
Mr. Moallem, who has been visiting Moscow, also said Syria was “ready to cooperate fully” with the Russian initiative, “particularly given that we want to become a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention.” A similar statement was also released to Interfax, a semiofficial news agency in Russia.
That’s a tough act to follow, as the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein explains here:
This is, in many ways, a better outcome than the White House could have hoped for. Punishing Syria may or may not have actually reinforced the norm against chemical weapons – particularly if the strikes went bad and the American people punished members of Congress who voted for them. But Syria joining the treaty against chemical weapons definitely, almost definitionally reinforces the ban.
That changes everything:
If Assad is willing to sign the treaty and stop using chemical weapons, they should declare victory. It’s a better outcome than they could have hoped for. And they might get it without firing a single shot.
That also made Obama’s anticipated speech pointless, as he’d no longer be asking for permission to attack Syria, but then that might have been the plan all along:
“I had some conversations about this with my counterpart from Russia last week,” Secretary of State John Kerry said during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday, referring to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. “President Putin raised the issue with President Obama at St. Petersburg. President Obama directed us to try to continue to talk and see if it is possible. So it is not something that – you know, suddenly emerged, though it did publicly. But it cannot be allowed to be a delay.”
Later, under questioning by Rep. Hank Johnson, Kerry said he had not made a mistake when he suggested the proposal in a press conference in London on Monday.
“I didn’t misspeak,” Kerry said. “I was asked about it. I responded because I was asked.”
A State Department official confirmed that Kerry and Lavrov had spoken about getting rid of Assad’s chemical weapons stockpiles last week.
“He has been talking with the Russians about the importance of securing chemical weapons back to his trip to Moscow and before,” the official said. “That is what he was talking about.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin mentioned the Kerry-Lavrov discussions in a speech on Tuesday, saying he had instructed the two diplomats to “get in touch” and “try to move this idea forward” and that he and Obama had “indeed discussed” the idea on the sidelines of the G-20.
No secretary of state says random things. This was planned, so Obama could give a provisional victory speech, although Lee Smith at the Weekly Standard has a different take on this:
The Syrian government has accepted the proposal because they understand it is an empty formalism. As everyone knows, as even all but the most obtuse White House officials must also understand, Assad will not give up his unconventional arsenal because he cannot. The use of chemical weapons in a Damascus suburb August 21 is evidence that, contrary to the regime’s narrative, Assad and his allies are not routing the rebels. The district that was targeted is a strategically significant node that, among other things, is close to the Dumayr airstrip where the regime is supplied with direct flights from Iran. The rebels had held the territory for over a year, thwarting repeated attempts by Assad’s forces to retake it. Presumably, Assad calculated that given the importance of the area it was worth testing Obama’s red line to take it. Without chemical weapons, Assad fears he may lose the war.
It’s all a sham:
Who knows what the Russians told Assad? For God’s sake, just say it’s your chemical weapons arsenal you’re turning over for safekeeping. Send them canisters of perfume, or cat urine. The Americans just want a deal – the president thinks he’s saving face. If the Americans are smart, they’ll let the whole thing drop and call it a win, but knowing them they’ll come back later and complain that you’re not keeping your end of the bargain. No problem. We’ll stall them. And then every time Obama whines it will remind your adversaries and U.S. allies around the world that the Americans are empty suits, a bunch of legalistic bureaucrats who are incapable of standing with their friends.
We’re all doomed:
The Russian proposal not only saves Obama from having to do something about Syria, it also, and much more important, shows the way forward with Iran. From the White House’s point of view its credible threat of force made Syria buckle – and will similarly bring Iran to the negotiating table. Putin has shown his bona fides as a credible interlocutor with Damascus and will do the same with Iran. Obama can relax now and imagine that he has finally earned his Nobel Peace Prize and that that sound he hears is the tide of war receding.
In fact, it is the sound of American allies around the world – the Poles and Czechs, the Japanese and the South Koreans, the Saudis, Jordanians and Israelis, among others – gnashing their teeth. They now see that they are on their own, and that the word of the United States means nothing.
We said we’d bomb Syria. We’re not going to. All is lost. And Putin played Obama and made Obama look like a fool – unless Ezra Klein is right and Obama won, big time.
This was confusing, and all that was left was the big speech:
President Obama said Tuesday that he would seize one last diplomatic opening to avoid a military strike on Syria, while trying to convince a skeptical United States that it must retaliate against the Middle Eastern nation’s alleged use of chemical weapons if the effort fails.
In a nationally televised prime-time address from the East Room of the White House, Obama cautiously embraced a Russian proposal that the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad give up its stockpile of chemical weapons, signaling that he would drop his call for an assault on the regime if Assad complies.
But with little guarantee that diplomacy would prevail, Obama spent the bulk of his 17-minute speech trying to directly address the concerns that have moved public opinion and Congress against him over the past week.
Obama got to give a speech on how everything is in transition and ambiguous, and he knows that upsets people, but he gave it a go anyway:
The president argued that a military response is in the national interest, although he conceded that Syria poses no direct threat to the United States. Obama said that not responding to Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons in an Aug. 21 attack that killed more than 1,400 outside Damascus would allow him to use them again and would embolden other regimes hostile to the United States, including Iran.
At the same time, Obama made an emotional appeal to Americans’ basic sense of right and wrong, invoking the use of gas in World War I and the Holocaust in arguing that the United States has the “exceptional” responsibility to use its military power to punish nations that use weapons of mass destruction. Obama went so far as to urge Americans to watch graphic videos of the aftermath of the attack in Syria.
“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?” Obama said. “Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria, along with our leadership of a world where we seek to ensure that the worst weapons will never be used.”
Talk of ideals and principles and folks change channels, as folks don’t want to hear about work in progress:
Obama said Tuesday night that he wants to give the process more time, and he dispatched Kerry to meetings in Europe to work out the details of a potential U.N. agreement. The president said he turned to Congress for authorization because he thinks that any action would be stronger if backed by lawmakers, especially after more than a decade of war.
Obama’s speech did not immediately appear to change minds on Capitol Hill. A number of Democratic senators expressed support afterward for his diplomatic approach, while remaining wary of military action. Most Senate Republicans who were on the fence remained unconvinced.
It doesn’t matter. They won’t have to vote any time soon. It’s all a work in progress. If the diplomatic option fails, Obama said that the United States must be prepared to strike – but that’s weeks away, or years. The rousing speech calling for decisive military action turned into a status report on some interesting developments being pursued. That’s not exactly compelling.
The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza heard this:
The core of the Obama argument was – as it has been for days now – a moral appeal. “When dictators commit atrocities, they depend on the world to look the other way,” Obama said at one point. But, it wasn’t just an appeal to our common morality. It was that if an act – gassing your own people – is condemned but tolerated by America then the chances of other rogue actors pressing the bounds of acceptable behavior in the future increases. What Obama seemed to be saying is that this isn’t about Syria – it’s about the next Syria and the one after that…
That’s noble, but abstract, and there’s this:
Obama made a very carefully argued case for how America should think of its place in the world in the 21st century. He said twice that America was “not the world’s policeman” but that in a case like Syria – where the country could send a moral message around the globe with small risks – we should do so. That’s a complex calculation that has a level of subjectivity built into it – with small risks, large rewards actually are often lies in the eye of the man or woman making the decision.
Cillizza makes the speech sound like a graduate seminar on the theories of political science, which in a sense it was, but at least Obama said this is not Iraq:
The President went above and beyond, rhetorically speaking, to drive home the point to the public that Syria is not Iraq and he won’t let it be. “We cannot resolve someone else’s civil war through force,” he said bluntly at the start of his speech. He also made clear that he knew people want him to focus on growing the economy at home, not litigating out other nations’ conflicts. It was, in that way, a remarkably frank speech about the political realities/difficulties he faces in making the case for action.
In short, Obama knew he had already lost his audience. He had been upstaged by events, and he may have carefully planned to be upstaged. He was not calling for any action now, just careful thinking, which is an even harder sell than calling for the possible start of a third major war for us in the Middle East. Americans find careful thinking utterly boring. Think of the Nike motto. Just do it. Nike sells a whole lot of shoes.
As for other reactions, there was Fred Kaplan with this:
The upshot is this: If Russia backs away from a real deal, after exciting so many players to its possibilities, Obama could emerge with his air strikes gaining greater support – at home and abroad.
To this end, Obama and his aides have crafted a narrative that makes everything they’ve done in recent days – the slips and slides, as well as the shrewd moves – seem smart and bold: namely, that Putin proposed this plan (and Assad subsequently announced that Syria would join the other 189 nations that have signed an international treaty prohibiting the use of chemical weapons) only because the United States had threatened to use force.
This narrative may even be true.
Ezra Klein adds this:
At this point, the White House has a surprisingly good plan to avoid war while achieving the limited goal of disarming Assad’s nuclear arsenal. But it relies on them making a very bad argument for a much larger war with much broader, more humanitarian, objectives.
At the New Yorker, George Packer doubts that diplomacy will work:
There’s a brutal and chaotic war going on. The United Nations would evacuate its advisers from Syria if a single one of them were killed, something that Assad or his extremist enemies could easily arrange. Armed factions will be trying to grab control of the weapons the whole time. Assad will have every incentive to withhold some part of his arsenal in case of ultimate need, and he’ll have a friend on the Security Council to help him delay and deceive.
Yeah, but Jonathan Chait is quite puzzled by all the opposition to diplomacy:
The sudden onset of diplomacy has produced a widespread skepticism that I find baffling. Remember, the purpose of air strikes is not to topple Assad. It can’t prevent the attack that has already happened. All it can do is prevent him – and, to a lesser extent, future dictators – from using chemical weapons. The skeptical reactions I’ve seen… all seem to lose sight of this, judging diplomacy against a standard of success higher than the air strikes could possibly have achieved.
In the Atlantic, David Graham agues here that the speech left lots paradoxes unresolved:
If Assad can’t hurt Americans, why is it a national-security concern? If American attacks will be so limited, will they even really make much difference, either to stop the slaughter or as a future deterrent? And if it’s so important to prevent gas attacks that “brazenly violate international law,” why is Obama so willing to conduct a punitive strike that seems to most experts to violate international law? With the nation watching, Obama had a chance to resolve these contradictions, and he didn’t do it – he didn’t even try.
In fact, the New York Times’ Ross Douthat argues here the speech shouldn’t have even taken place:
A prime time presidential address should either announce a policy course or make a specific appeal to Congress; it should not be wasted on a situation where the course is so unclear and the appeal so vague and undirected. Yes, it’s been on the schedule since last week, but there is no rule saying that a president must speak when he’s announced that he will speak if significant events intervene. And after the Russian gambit and the Congressional vote’s postponement, it would have been the better part of valor to simply postpone this speech as well.
For slightly different reasons, Daniel Larison agrees:
It’s impossible to take seriously Obama’s claim that he doesn’t think “world’s policeman” is the proper U.S. role when he is delivering a speech defending the necessity of enforcing an international norm with military action. He recycled several of his officials’ worst fear-mongering arguments about proliferation, Iran, and terrorism, but these have not improved through repeated assertion. All in all, this was a speech that Obama didn’t need to give, and he said nothing that would persuade anyone not already supportive of his policy.
Rod Dreher simply throws up his hands:
Was anybody’s mind changed by that speech? I can’t imagine it. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t convincing either. It’s about the best attempt one could imagine to sell an incoherent, bad policy.
Andrew Sullivan is more charitable:
This emphatically does not solve the Syria implosion. But Obama has never promised to.
What it does offer is a nonviolent way toward taking the chemical weapons issue off the table. Just because we cannot solve everything does not mean we cannot solve something. And the core truth is that without Obama’s willingness to go out on a precarious limb, we would not have that opportunity.
Take what you can get:
If the Russians can more effectively enforce what the US wants, it is a huge step forward to give them that global responsibility, and credit. That inclination – deep in Obama’s bones in domestic and foreign policy – is at the root of his community organizing background. Stake your ground, flush out your partner’s cards, take a step back and see what would make a desired result more likely without you, and seize it if it emerges. The result is one less dependent on US might or presidential power, and thereby more easily entrenched in the habits and institutions of the world.
Yes, he’s still a community organizer. It’s just that now, the community he is so effectively organizing is the world.
That’s one way to see it, but many Americans want a president, not a community organizer. Better to have someone forceful and decisive, and dismissive of Russia and France and Muslims or whomever, than someone who gets the job done, quietly, and doesn’t care who gets the credit, so long as things get fixed.
No, wait – that can’t be right. Americans elected Obama twice, probably because they sensed he’d fix things, with little fuss and minimal bluster. Maybe they’ll forgive him for this status-report speech, where he actually upstaged himself a day or two earlier. War and Peace aren’t show business after all. Opening acts don’t matter.