On Tuesday night, President Obama delivered a hastily-cobbled-together speech, first making the aggressive case for action against Syria based on Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons, then careening to the case against action in favor of more diplomacy, before concluding with the warning that war was still on the table.
Obama began by making the case that Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Damascus in August represented a threat to global peace. He relied heavily on the use of the disturbing images from that gas attack: “The images from this massacre are sickening: men, women, children lying in rows, killed by poison gas, others foaming at the mouth, gasping for breath, a father clutching his dead children, imploring them to get up and walk.” Obama called it a “crime against humanity and a violation of the laws of war.” He argued that if the world allowed Assad to get away with use of chemical weapons, that use would become more common, and eventually inflict casualties on American allies and perhaps even Americans directly. He concluded, “When dictators commit atrocities, they depend upon the world to look the other way until those horrifying pictures fade from memory, but these things happened. The facts cannot be denied.”
This meant, Obama said, that America had to take military action. “I determined that 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. The purpose of this strike would be to deter Assad from using chemical weapons, to degrade his regime’s ability to use them, and to make clear to the world that we will not tolerate their use.” Such a targeted strike, of course, would do little or nothing to “degrade” Assad’s WMDs; it would not change the regime or strike at Assad’s sponsors in Iran. In fact, Obama has said he does not want to change the Assad regime — and he used Iraq as an example of mistakenly changing a regime, despite the fact that Hussein used chemical weapons on some 50,000 members of his own population.
But Obama then punted even on such “unbelievably small” action, in the words of Secretary of State John Kerry – he explained that he had to go to Congress for authorization “in the absence of a direct or imminent threat to our security.” And he tried to bludgeon Congress into submission by dishonestly answering several questions posed about his policy.
First, Obama took on the argument that America is “sick and tired of war.” He said, “I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria. I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan. I will not pursue a prolonged air campaign like Libya or Kosovo. This would be a targeted strike to achieve a clear objective, deterring the use of chemical weapons and degrading Assad’s capabilities.” How that would materially affect the Assad regime remained unexplained.
Next, Obama attempted to answer the question as to what a “pinprick strike in Syria” would accomplish. Instead of answering the question directly, though, Obama suggested that there are no such things as pinprick strikes. “Let me make something clear: The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks. Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver,” Obama said, as though a missile with the stencil USA on it would be significantly more intimidating than a missile with another nation’s logo. One missile fired from the Mediterranean Sea by the most powerful country on earth is anything but a deterrent – it is an open sign that the United States is unwilling to go any further, especially given the president’s obvious moral outrage against the Assad regime. But Obama’s full-scale wishful thinking continued: “I don’t think we should remove another dictator with force. We learned from Iraq that doing so makes us responsible for all that comes next. But a targeted strike can makes Assad — or any other dictator — think twice before using chemical weapons.”
After that, Obama considered whether striking Syria would increase “the dangers of retaliation.” He then answered, “the Assad regime does not have the ability to seriously threaten our military.” And what about our allies, like Israel? In typical Obama fashion, he explained that Israel could “defend itself with overwhelming force, as well as the unshakable support of the United States of America.” But couldn’t that drag the United States into deeper involvement? It was a question that remained unanswered.
Obama then asked whether getting rid of Assad could pave the way to an al Qaeda regime. His answer was nothing short of nonsensical: “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.” In other words, paving the way for al Qaeda by getting rid of Assad is the only choice, because not doing so would pave the way for al Qaeda. Obama pointedly made no mention of the persecution of Syrian Christians by the Syrian opposition, which he labeled largely moderate and peace-seeking without providing evidence of that contention.
All of this was a somewhat convoluted but muscular case for doing something – although the scope of that something remained undefined.
But thanks to the developments of the last 24 hours, in which Obama caved to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plan for more negotiations, Obama suddenly swiveled and began making the case against military action: “I have a deeply held preference for peaceful solutions…. 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.” He then said he would hold off on having Congress vote at all – after spending ten minutes making the case for a Congressional vote: “I have therefore asked the leaders of Congress to postpone a vote to authorize the use of force while we pursue this diplomatic path. I’m sending Secretary of State John Kerry to meet his Russian counterpart on Thursday, and I will continue my own discussions with President Putin.”
Finally, Obama portrayed his inconclusiveness as moderation, appealing to his “friends on the right” to “reconcile your commitment to America’s military might with the failure to act when a cause is so plainly just,” and his “friends on the left” 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.” What exactly were his friends on right and left supposed to do? Not vote for action in Congress – he withdrew that request. Not oppose action – he made the case for action. Apparently, Americans were just supposed to nod along to President Obama’s atonal Syrian song.
After all that, where does America stand? It doesn’t. Obama’s America stands for nothing except Obama: his egotism forced him into embracing a “red line” he was never willing to defend; his egotism forced him to push for action; now his egotism forces him to push against action. Obama’s call to action on Tuesday night was a call to incoherence. But President Obama is so in love with the sound of his own voice that he never even noticed that inconvenient truth.
Ben Shapiro is Editor-At-Large of Breitbart News and author of the New York Times bestseller “Bullies: How the Left’s Culture of Fear and Intimidation Silences America” (Threshold Editions, January 8, 2013).