Earlier today, I wrote a review of President Obama’s speech, which was hardly complimentary. Other reviews make it look positively warm in comparison. Take for instance this long and pointed criticism from John Harris at Politico, which frames the speech as coming from two different Obamas and then concludes with by calling the entire effort “disingenuous”:
Two weeks of zig-zag foreign policy by President Barack Obama — marching to war one moment, clinging desperately to diplomacy the next — culminated Tuesday night, appropriately enough, in a zig-zag address to the nation that did little to clarify what will come next in the Syria crisis but shined a glaring hot light on the debate in the president’s own mind. …
Zag finished the sentence with a jeering reminder: “But chemical weapons were still used by the Assad regime.”
Zig noted that recent diplomatic activity is at least tentatively promising, thanks to “constructive talks that I had with President Putin. The Russian government has indicated a willingness to join with the international community in pushing Assad to give up his chemical weapons. The Assad regime has now admitting that it has these weapons and even said they’d join the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits their use.”
This led to perhaps the most disingenuous line uttered by either Zig or Zag in the 16-minute speech, with the president claiming that he had asked Congress to postpone the vote that he earlier requested authorizing use of military force in Syria in order to let the latest diplomatic moves play out. But just a minute earlier he had asserted that a main reason diplomacy was gaining traction was because of the “credible threat of U.S. military action.” Presumably, any further diplomacy would be even more effective if Congress sent a message that it was giving Obama all options to act if the talks fail. The more plausible rationale for congressional delay is that the administration would lose the vote if it took place now.
The Associated Press knocked out the key strut undergirding his call to action:
OBAMA: “We know the Assad regime was responsible…. The facts cannot be denied.”
THE FACTS: The Obama administration has not laid out proof Assad was behind the attack.
The administration has cited satellite imagery and communications intercepts, backed by social media and intelligence reports from sources in Syria, as the basis for blaming the Assad government. But the only evidence the administration has made public is a collection of videos it has verified of the victims. The videos do not demonstrate who launched the attacks.
Administration officials have not shared the satellite imagery they say shows rockets and artillery fire leaving government-held areas and landing in 12 rebel-held neighborhoods outside Damascus where chemical attacks were reported. Nor have they shared transcripts of the Syrian officials allegedly warning units to ready gas masks or discussing how to handle U.N. investigators after it happened.
The White House has declined to explain where it came up with the figure of at least 1,429 dead, including 400 children — a figure far higher than estimates by nongovernmental agencies such as the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has counted only victims identified by name, with a current total of 502. In his remarks, Obama more generally accused Assad’s forces of gassing to death “over 1,000 people, including hundreds of children.”
That’s actually what many Americans would have expected last night — an accounting of the proof that the administration claims to have. Even an explanation of how the proof was assembled and how it relates directly to the Syrian military would have been helpful, especially with Obama making a public case for military action on prime time. Members of Congress have been briefed on the proof, but those briefings are convincing more lawmakers to oppose military action than support it, which may be why the White House hasn’t bothered to share more of the evidence with the public.
Reason TV’s Nick Gillespie offers four reasons why the speech failed:
The invocation of American exceptionalism caused gales of snark and criticism on Twitter last night in real time, and is a point I forgot to include in my own remarks.
Dana Milbank tried to be more charitable, but still noted that the course of American diplomacy most resembles a cork bobbing in the water:
It may turn out that the Russian proposal gives Obama, and the United States, a face-saving way out of an unwanted conflict. It may even be that the possibility of a U.S. attack spurred the Russians and Syrians to act. But it feels as if the ship of state is bobbing like a cork in international waters. This was to be the week the president rallied lawmakers and the public around military action. But in a series of TV interviews Monday and in Tuesday night’s address, he instead explained why any such action is on hold.
Obama’s leadership, particularly in his second term, can most charitably be described as subtle. But he is so subtle that he sometimes appears to be a bystander. He left immigration up to Congress, which put the issue on ice. Congress also buried gun control and efforts to replace the sequester. Obama, meantime, has been reacting to events — Egypt, the National Security Agency revelations — rather than shaping them. He launched a fresh push to sell Americans on the merits of Obamacare — yet more than 4 in 10 remain unaware that the law is still on the books. …
Obama joined in Tuesday night, saying the Russian proposal came in part from “constrictive talks that I had” with Vladimir Putin. Obama said, “This initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force.”
Yet moments earlier, Obama told Americans that he decided “it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike.”
Which one is it? Ask again in a couple of days.
The Telegraph’s Nile Gardiner called the speech “an incoherent mess,” and suggested that Obama has surpassed Jimmy Carter as the most feckless US President in foreign policy:
Billed as a game-changer on Syria, the President’s White House addresslanded with a thud that could be heard as far away as Damascus. Barack Obama has a huge credibility problem on Syria and on foreign policy in general, and Tuesday night’s speech will do nothing to help that. As Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer put it on Fox News, it was “one of the most odd presidential speeches ever delivered,” with no clear-cut strategy laid out, while urging Congress to delay a vote on the use of force against Assad’s regime.
In effect, Obama farmed out US foreign policy in the Middle East yet again to the Russians, appealing for time to consider the Russian proposal for securing Syria’s chemical weapons, a ruse described accurately by the Telegraph’s Con Coughlin as “a massive red herring.”He also used his address to take swipes at the Bush Administration over the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, both of which it should be noted, were waged with the backing of Congress and the American people, as well as large international coalitions on a scale that the Obama administration can only dream of. …
In essence, and this was amply displayed tonight, Barack Obama has no big picture strategy on Syria, or the wider Middle East, and is bereft of a clear game plan. His speech was also a sea of contradictions. He talked about deploying American military might but has no intention of delivering a decisive blow. He paid lip service to the ideal of American exceptionalism, but is happy to kowtow to Moscow. He urged Congress to support his approach, but wants them to wait before they vote. For these were the words of an exceptionally weak and indecisive president, one who seems to be making up policy on the hoof, as he stumbles and bumbles along on the world stage, with his hapless Secretary of State in tow.
How different to the halcyon days of Ronald Reagan, a man who led the world’s superpower with strength and conviction. The Gipper knew the meaning of American leadership, especially at times of crisis. Unfortunately President Obama can only dream of holding a candle to Reagan’s achievements, and at present is even outperforming Jimmy Carter as the most feeble US president of modern times.
Jimmy Carter says, Not so fast …
The only way to be assured that Syrian chemical weapons will not be used in the future is not through a military strike but through a successful international effort.
Regardless of the postponed congressional vote regarding the use of military force, other actions should be taken to address the situation in Syria, including an urgent effort to convene without conditions the long-delayed peace conference the United States and Russia announced in May. A resolution in the U.N. General Assembly to condemn any further use of chemical weapons, regardless of perpetrator, would be approved overwhelmingly, and the United States should support Russia’s proposal that Syria’s chemical weapons be placed under U.N. control. A military strike by the United States is undesirable and will become unnecessary if this alternative proposal is strongly supported by the U.N. Security Council.
If fully implemented in dozens of sites throughout Syria, this effort to secure the chemical weapons would amount to a cease-fire, with a large U.N. peacekeeping force deployed. In the best of circumstances, this could lead to convening the Geneva peace conference, perhaps including Iran, that could end the conflict.
Some have predicted catastrophic consequences to the credibility of President Obama and our country if Congress were to reject his request for approval of military action against the Assad regime in Syria. These dire predictions are exaggerated.
Hey, at least Carter’s coherent. Maureen Dowd complains that it’s amateur hour at the White House, but Obama’s current predicament is the fault of … guess who?
Now, when it is clear Obama can’t convince Congress, the American public, his own wife, the world, Liz Cheney or even Donald “Shock and Awe” Rumsfeld to bomb Syria — just a teensy-weensy bit — Pooty-Poot (as W. called him) rides, shirtless, to the rescue, offering him a face-saving way out? If it were a movie, we’d know it was a trick. We can’t trust the soulless Putin — his Botox has given the former K.G.B. officer even more of a poker face — or the heartless Bashar al-Assad. By Tuesday, Putin the Peacemaker was already setting conditions.
Just as Obama and Kerry — with assists from Hillary and some senators — were huffing and puffing that it was their military threat that led to the breakthrough, Putin moved to neuter them, saying they’d have to drop their military threat before any deal could proceed. The administration’s saber-rattling felt more like knees rattling. Oh, for the good old days when Obama was leading from behind. Now these guys are leading by slip-of-the-tongue.
Amateur hour started when Obama dithered on Syria and failed to explain the stakes there. It escalated last August with a slip by the methodical wordsmith about “a red line for us” — which the president and Kerry later tried to blur as the world’s red line, except the world was averting its eyes.
Obama’s flip-flopping, ambivalent leadership led him to the exact place he never wanted to be: unilateral instead of unified. Once again, as with gun control and other issues, he had not done the groundwork necessary to line up support. The bumbling approach climaxed with two off-the-cuff remarks by Kerry, hitting a rough patch in the role of a lifetime, during a London press conference Monday; he offered to forgo an attack if Assad turned over “every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community” and promised, if they did strike, that it would be an “unbelievably small” effort.
So it’s Obama’s fault, right? After all, he’s been in office for four-plus years and quarterbacked the surge in Afghanistan. Not really, Dowd argues, because that darned George W. Bush ruined interventionism for everyone:
Obama cried over the children of Newtown. He is stricken, as he said in his address Tuesday, by “images of children writhing in pain and going still on a cold hospital floor” from “poison gas.” He thought — or thought he thought — that avenging the gassing was the right thing to do. But W., once more haunting his successor’s presidency, drained credibility, coffers and compassion.
While most Americans shudder at the news that 400 children have been killed by a monster, they recoil at the Middle East now; they’ve had it with Shiites vs. Sunnis, with Alawites and all the ancient hatreds. Kerry can bluster that “we’re not waiting for long” for Assad to cough up the weapons, but it will be hard for him to back it up, given that a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll indicates that Joe Sixpack is now a peacenik; in 2005, 60 percent of Republicans agreed with W. that America should foster democracy in the world; now only 19 percent of Republicans believe it.
Well, Dowd wrote a passably realistic half of a column, which is half more than we usually see.