Obama,  Syria

Obama’s Syria speech

If you missed President Obama’s speech last night, here it is:

Obama recognized that public opinion in the US opposed a military strike against the Assad regime; he tried to respond to some of the concerns in his speech. All indications are that a vote in Congress on whether to approve a strike would have gone heavily against him. So it’s not surprising that he asked to delay a vote while he agreed to explore how serious Russia and Syria are about an offer to eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile (at least they finally admit it exists).

There are lots of reasons to be skeptical, notably Russia’s position that a threat of military action to enforce an agreement would be “unacceptable.”

At the same time, Obama explicitly did not take military action off the table, and he didn’t appear in a mood for putting up with endless delaying tactics.

Perhaps the best line in the speech: “Let me make something clear: The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.”

Obama is playing a difficult hand, but it was to a large extent dealt by himself. It’s hard to dispute Julia Ioffe’s summary of events at The New Republic:

First, he drew a red line on chemical weapons, seemingly by accident. Then, he all but ignored chemical weapons use by Assad until the evidence forced itself on the world. Then he agonized on whether to act, while [Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Martin] Dempsey and the Pentagon rolled him, leaking their military plans to anyone who would listen, “probably,” said one insider, “because they didn’t want to act.” Then, he talked about how limited the strikes would be, all while Assad moved his men and his guns into residential areas and the Russians moved their ships in. Then, out of nowhere, he decided to take it to Congress. “The president says that he’s going to launch strikes and then, suddenly, he’s going to Congress. It’s probably one of the more incredible things I’ve ever seen,” [Senator John] McCain told me.

Let’s hope for more decisiveness from this point on.

Update: As usual, Jeffrey Goldberg has some smart observations:

I agree that the Russian proposal is worth pursuing, but not because I think it will be successful. I think it’s worth pursuing because Syrian noncompliance will help buttress the case for tougher action. Not missile strikes, necessarily — I’ve been dubious about those — but a new commitment to a long-term strategy of regime change.

In this extended pause — a pause in which John Kerry, the secretary of state, will be traveling to Geneva to get into arguments with his Russian counterpart, and in which Americans (and all the West) can return to their default position of not paying attention to Syria’s mass slaughter — Assad will be able to sleep well at night, knowing that no punishment is coming for his astonishing violation of a baseline norm of civilization, much less for his astonishing acts of murder committed with conventional weapons. For those, he is perfectly safe. Remember a couple of years ago, when the (rhetorical) position of the U.S. was that Assad should go? Well, after two years of saying that Assad should go, the message is now that Assad can stay, just minus one piece of his arsenal.
One surefire way to remove the chemical-weapons threat, though, is to remove the regime that uses chemical weapons. Millions of Syrians are waiting for the White House to embrace this truth.

This much can be said in the president’s favor: His speech did keep the pressure on, in some form. The Russians are on notice that he’s still contemplating military action. That isn’t much, but it’s something. And he’s making himself look statesmanlike in comparison to many Republicans on Capitol Hill, who apparently have no interest in, or knowledge of, American responsibilities in the world — responsibilities we have fulfilled since we created the post-World War II international order. Obama remains an internationalist who is seeking, in a flawed and sometimes scattershot way, to convince the U.S., and its allies, that we have obligations in the world.