At least it was short. That, however, was its only virtue, but even that wasn’t enough to raise questions about why Barack Obama bothered to give such a momentous speech to say … nothing at all new, and nothing at all about what he wanted from the American people.
Charles Krauthammer dubbed this the “oddest presidential speech ever,” and he has a point. Presidential addresses from the White House during prime time usually have a clear purpose, or what I called on Twitter last night a “Big Ask.” This particular bully pulpit isn’t used for fireside chats or for campaign speeches, but to focus American attention on a particular and inexorable course of action, and to rally Americans behind the Commander in Chief for that action.
Yesterday, though, Obama sounded contradictory and confused. He attempted to rouse moral outrage over the use of chemical weapons against scores or hundreds children in Damascus on August 21st, which is an easy case to make — but thousands of children have been killed in the Syrian civil war in all sorts of ways, by all sides. Obama argued that Bashar al-Assad had to be deterred from using chemical weapons in the future, but left out any call for regime change, which is still the official strategic goal of the Obama administration. To Americans reluctant to engage in another war, Obama cajoled us to action, claiming that only the United States had the power to bring Assad to heel.
And then almost in the same breath, Obama then acknowledged that a diplomatic solution had arisen, despite two weeks of beating the drums for war. Just after arguing that only the US military could solve the problem, Obama said that he was turning to Russia for a potential solution. Not only that, but he also announced that he had asked Congress to hold off on a vote to authorize military action until the Russia and UN track played itself out. This change was necessitated by the fumbling of his Secretary of State, even though Obama himself had just called the UN “hocus pocus.”
So what was Obama asking of the American people? Nothing. What new and convincing information did Obama bring to the American people? None. What new argument did Obama make to shift the strong momentum against military action? He had none. There was nothing new in this speech from Obama that hadn’t been argued at length in his six broadcast-network interviews the day before, or that his White House and State Department hadn’t offered in the previous week before the speech.
And most oddly, despite having the attention of the nation on the eve of 9/11, Obama never bothered to mention either the devastating terrorist attacks from twelve years ago or the sacking of the Benghazi consulate on the previous anniversary, which took place on Obama’s watch. The closest that Obama came to either was a mention of al-Qaeda which argued that it would benefit most if we didn’t attack Assad, who’s currently fighting their affiliates in Syria, and an argument that the majority of Assad’s opponents are peaceful moderates:
It’s true that some of Assad’s opponents are extremists. But al Qaida will only draw strength in a more chaotic Syria if people there see the world doing nothing to prevent innocent civilians from being gassed to death.
The majority of the Syrian people, and the Syrian opposition we work with, just want to live in peace, with dignity and freedom. And the day after any military action, we would redouble our efforts to achieve a political solution that strengthens those who reject the forces of tyranny and extremism.
Did Obama offer any evidence of these assertions? Not at all, although plenty of evidence exists to cast serious doubt on them.
The speech may have been short, but it far outstripped its substance and its symbolic value. Before a President gets up to wave the bloody shirt, is it too much to ask that he (a) knows what the hell he wants to do, (b) actually has decided on military action as a last resort instead of a first resort, and (c) and knows who we’re fighting against — and for?
Update: Fixed video, and the second (b) was supposed to be (c).