The President Goes Prime Time on Syria: Initial Reactions


Ethan Gach

I write about comics, video games and American politics. I fear death above all things. Just below that is waking up in the morning to go to work. You can follow me on Twitter at @ethangach or at my blog, And though my opinions aren’t for hire, my virtue is.

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115 Responses

  1. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    I don’t really get the point of the speech either, except that IMO Obama has not communicated directly with the public enough about the crisis (largely owing to his decision to keep hi previous commitment to attending the G20), so an update seems appropriate. This is a lot of pomp and circumstance for a simple update, but, well, so what? The problem is really the timing – Obama seems to have given the speech now only because he’d made such a big deal of scheduling it, since any votes to authorize force (whose purpose would now clearly be to provide leverage in diplomacy – which is exactly what we should want them to be used for as often as we can get Administrations who will do it) have now been (indefinitely?) delayed. It would seem to make more sense to me if he had waited until it was clearer how the negotiations over a process to relieve Syria of CWs were going to play out, and it;s not a show of strength for Obama not to have been up to delaying the speech. OTOH, it’s unknown what kind of timeframe that process will play out over, and as I said, there was in fact a need for a direct update, so that may have just left them thinking, well, let’s just go out and give our current view.

    I agree with Tim that the president is blunting his own leadership and any message he’s trying to send the world about CW use. OTOH, these recent developments constitute a real possibility of concrete improvement in the overall CW control policy sphere, and possibly in the Syria conflict more broadly (internationalizing it by this route will have unpredictable consequences, but one possibility is that Assad finds hims self maybe a bit constrained during the time while a CW control team is being organized and deployed in Syria, which could amount to a de fact partial ceeasefire.) In my view, it has always been important to send a message to the world that U.S. and world attitudes on CW use have changed since 1988, or more precisely not to send the message that the world will essentially have no reaction to uses on this scale, but as I’ve said, I didn’t think that it was ultimately important enough to justify the destruction (on many levels) that near-unilateral U.S. strikes would cause. I *do* think this path sends a message that there being essentially no response doesn’t (and for a variety of reasons, I don’t believe the option of a referral to the ICC, probably the internationally legally appropriate response, would have sent a message of any seriousness to other possible CWs users), so in that sense IMO this is clearly starting to approach the right kind of response. The being said, the process that has gotten us here has been confused in the extreme, and Tim rightly points out that that really does diminish the clarity of any message that is being sent.

    Lastly, I do understand that deploring CWs use against civilian children is self-righteous, emotionally manipulative, and in the case of the U.S., inconsistent bordering on hypocritical. Nevertheless, IMO, we do want world leaders to do that deploring. It actually is deplorable, and we want leaders to at least enunciate that that is their belief, for if they don’t, and don’t maintain at least a spoken norm with respect to actions like that, we have no basis upon which to even try to hold them accountable for holding that view. And I don’t understand at all how it’s condescending: it’s an affirmation of what we all believe.Report

  2. Avatar George Turner says:

    Well, I don’t have much of an impression of the speech because it didn’t make much of an impression. He said a lot of stuff, then contradicted that stuff, then talked about something else. My guess is that the speech was put together by splicing several drafts that were trying to keep up with unfolding events.

    Putin has said that the UNSC won’t vote until they get a firm promise from Obama to forswear any strikes, and considering the box he’s in, I don’t see how he can avoid it, though I’m sure he’ll couch any such statement in gobbledygook and diplomatic language. He claims he reserves the right to strike if the UN route proves unworkable, but doesn’t seem to realize that he can’t order a strike simply because he refused to promise not to do so, which is what that situation boils down to.

    So the UN route is a given, and however they phrase it, someone has to put boots on the ground to secure the CW sites, and Obama, Kerry, and McCain have sworn to the American people that they will not put US boots on the ground. So the boots will probably be primarily Russian. Iran might offer some, but nobody on the UNSC is really wanting their help these days.

    Obama also made a point of saying he reserves the right to strike at a future date if Syria doesn’t comply fully with whatever the UN decides, or if they fail to meet the requirements set by the US for control or destruction of their chemical weapons. That sounds reassuring, except that it shows Obama is a fool who hasn’t thought about what happens next.

    Russia, and perhaps China and some token Western forces are going to go into Syria, whose CW sites are scattered, hidden, and defended. The locations of all their munitions are simply the places where they’ve decided to put munitions. Where ever they’ve put munitions will become a location with Russian boots on the ground. Those Russian boots are human shields, under the auspices of the United Nations. We can’t strike those, ever.

    To take charge of any chemical weapon site, the Russians would have to augment (working with) the Syrian forces previously in charge of guarding such weapons, or supplant them. The Russians, UN, and Obama would of course argue that it would be best if the UN forces went ahead and supplanted the Syrian forces. This is good because it will free up a lot of Syrian forces for front line assaults, easing their manpower problems.

    That leaves Russians and perhaps some other UN forces exposed to potential rebel or terrorist attacks, so they’ll have to dig in. Given the grave danger of having CW munitions falling into Al Qaeda hands, they might even have to call in lots of air support to carry out their vital UN mission of guarding the stockpiles. And of course the stockpiles are located where ever Syrian needs a stockpile located, or Russian troops located, or just a good series of air strikes. The Russians could even move the CW around to “more secure” locations as needed to meet tactical challenges presented by the rebels.

    At some point Obama might actually wise up enough and demand the removal of the Russian troops, but of course they can’t be removed because their guarding the critically important chemical weapons stockpiles so Assad can’t use them, and of course Assad can’t guard them because all his guards got sent to the front lines when the UN demanded that Assad relieve them of guard duty. We wouldn’t want to risk having the weapons fall into Al Qaeda’s hands, certainly. Besides, Obama can’t order Russian troops to do anything.

    So Obama has opened the door to a massive Russian reinforcement of Syrian positions, acting as a reserve Syrian force in the conflict, and done it in such a way that the world will celebrate Russian involvement instead of condemning it. Genius.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to George Turner says:

      he can’t order a strike simply because he refused to promise not to do so

      But he “can’t” (wouldn’t be able to, I thank you mean) do it then no more than he “can’t” do it now. I.e., he was going to do it without the U.S. Congress on board and without the UNSC blessing it. It was already as “can’t” as it ever really can be, yet we all know he still “could” have even under those circumstances. Now he’s backed off and may gain concessions. If he avoids forswearing strikes in the agreement yielding those concessions, what greater constraint does he then face against striking that he didn’t face before? If anything, the failure of a concerted diplomatic effort to contain the weapons may increase his can

      If by “can’t” you’re referring to the presence of international boots on the ground, you may be right, though strikes on the chemical weapons themselves were likely always off the table for obvious reasons. UN personnel would also likely be pulled before any strikes after their mission had failed commenced.

      The issue is really whether Obama can gain the concessions while sticking to his position reserving the right to strike if progress is not satisfactory, and then if he can’t and elects to give up that condition, how constrained he’ll actually be by having done so.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to George Turner says:

      BTW, George, what are you saying ought to be done about Syria?Report

      • Avatar George Turner in reply to Michael Drew says:

        At this point we are removed from the equation, or will be in a week or so. What happens in Syria will then be up to the ongoing talks, posturing, and actions of Assad and Putin (with input from Iran and China) on one side, and the Gulf Cooperation Council led by the Saudis on the other. The Saudis have already been offering the Russians some very sweet deals to get their cooperation in letting Assad fall, but now the Russians may have the upper hand. It’s hard to say how that will play out. I’m pretty sure everyone in the region has just written us off, including the rebels.

        However, in Obama’s favor, no other country in history has lost this much power and influence in 48 hours without suffering a catastrophic military defeat that took the lives of thousands of soldiers. Obama accomplished it without losing one, and using the logic of jobs “created or saved”, that’s like several thousand soldiers to the good. He’s winning!

        The Syrian civil war will continue until someone wins, and perhaps, having rendered ourselves irrelevant, we’ll just see who can win it the fastest, hopefully while inflicting the least casualties both in the war and the aftermath. If Putin can work more magic and get the GCC to withdraw their financial and logistic support for the rebels, Assad might be able to win enough on the battlefield for his side to feel a bit more secure, and perhaps then, if things calm down, some compromises can be made. If the battle lines and refugee situation stabilizes some sort of workable partition might even come into play.

        Having Al Qaeda and Al Nusra lose one might be in everyone’s best interest.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

        You’re describing what will happen. What should Western powers do? What should they have done?Report

      • Avatar DavidTC in reply to Michael Drew says:

        However, in Obama’s favor, no other country in history has lost this much power and influence in 48 hours without suffering a catastrophic military defeat that took the lives of thousands of soldiers. Obama accomplished it without losing one, and using the logic of jobs “created or saved”, that’s like several thousand soldiers to the good. He’s winning!

        And it’s stuff like this that leave me completely baffled as to conservative’s thought processes.

        The US threatened war because of something.

        This forced both Syria _and_ Russia to do something about that thing, without the US actually having to even send troops.

        You seemed to have failed to notice that Obama made this entirely about chemical weapons, and as as long as the chemical weapons are secured, the US ‘won’ in the eyes of pretty much anyone. We, like, _double_ won because we managed to do it by just looking at them menacingly and not actually doing a damn thing.

        In what universe does the fact we can apparently raise our eyebrow’s threateningly at a Russian ally’s behavior, and get Russia to actually something about it, cause us to ‘lose power and influence’ in the world?

        (Now, _internally_ to the US is something else entirely, and I admit calling for bombing before then putting it up to a vote that didn’t look good was silly looking, but that’s an entirely different issue of internal politics the world has very little understanding of.)Report

      • Avatar George Turner in reply to Michael Drew says:

        Because our involvement in Syria had virtually nothing to do with chemical weapons, and it never has until Obama unwittingly over-emphasized their importance.

        Obama and Hillary were playing catch-up on the Arab Spring, a movement he’d encouraged (if perhaps unknowingly) that resulted in revolutions which were quickly dominated by Islamists. Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and Syria were all struck by it to varying degrees. In Egypt it actually worked strongly against us, and nearly came to disaster until the Egyptian Army stepped back in to crush the Muslim Brotherhood (fathers of Al Qaeda). The main US interest in the Arab Spring movement was for revolutions to topple Libya and Syria (and Iran if it would spread there), two nations that have always been at odds with US and our allies.

        The whole world of course knows that we’d like to see the Syrian Ba’athist regime fall, and that desire has been a prominent aspect of international relations since the 1970’s. Egypt went to the peace table with Israel, as did Jordan, but Syria remained adamantly hostile. They caused immense trouble in Lebanon, and cause trouble for Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq, and they caused immense trouble for US forces in Iraq. Syria is usually lumped in with Iran and North Korea as countries that are extremely hostile to the West and pursue WMD (including nuclear) and ballistic missiles. Russia’s only naval base in the Med is in Syria, and Syria has always advanced Soviet interests in the region (aimed at toppling Israel and US influence).

        To help topple the Syrian government, the US has been supplying weapons clandestinely (and not so clandestinely) to the rebels. The almost two-dozen CIA officers in Benghazi during the attack last year were arranging weapons sales and shipments to counterparts in Turkey, who’d then move the weapons into Syria.

        Unfortunately the efforts have hit stumbling blocks because there are too many bad actors among the Syrian rebels, and our trust is low. Yet, despite that, our interests are strong. John McCain, one of the leading hawks on Syria before the CW dust-up, was urging lawmakers to strongly back the Syrian rebels with heavy weapons and surface to air missiles, even visiting rebel-occupied areas personally.

        Then a relatively minor chemical attack happens (the French only could confirm about 280 dead directly from gas, and the precision of the much larger and precise US figure has become something of an embarrassment), and despite the uncertainty about which side or who on which side carried out the attack, Obama seized on it and tried to rush to war, waving it as a bloody shirt. He focused all the attention on the dangerous and unacceptable threat of chemical weapons, when our real issue in Syria was that Assad’s regime hadn’t collapsed yet, freeing the region of a bastion of Iranian and Russian influence and eliminating another Ba’athist Arab national socialist police state.

        Yet Obama wavered in going to a Congress that remained highly skeptical, then handed off to Kerry, who fumbled. Putin recovered and ran it in for a touchdown. The chemical weapons were a side-issue, important mostly because the rebels might end up in possession of them. In trying to make the chemical weapons an excuse to use US airstrikes to tip the war in the rebels favor, our real goal, Obama created the perfect pretext for the Russians and Syrians to seize the issue and defeat us diplomatically and defeat the rebels militarily.

        Now, taking Obama’s own issue from him, Syria is demanding that we quit supply arms to the rebels. As I’ve said, we’ll probably have to stop doing that because we can’t be supplying arms to the rebels that are threatening the CW sites that we’re trying to protect. Russia is demanding that we forswear any threat of force, which we’ll soon have to do anyway because US strikes would hit UN and Russian monitors that we sent in, through our fumbling acceptance of the Russian/Syrian proposal. We just gave the Syrian regime legitimacy because we’re now going to partner with it to control its chemical weapons – which were a useless distraction from the real conflict.

        It’s as if, on the eve of D-Day, Churchill and FDR had said the whole war was about Hitler’s V-2 rockets. So Hitler said, “Hey, how about you come and help me get rid of those?” We say “Okay! Peace in our time!” Then he says “Oh, and you can’t invade. That might mess up the rocket inspections.” “Okay. We must trust, but verify.” Hitler says, “Thanks! Oh, and you have to quit helping the Russians.” “Okay. Wouldn’t make sense to arm people who are rolling toward those rocket sites we want to protect.” Hitler says “Thanks! Oh, and you have to call off all the bombing. Wouldn’t want to accidentally hit your own inspectors or anything.” We say, “Yeah, that makes sense. No more bombing.” Hitler says “Woot! I win!” We say, “Woot! We win! Those V-2’s will be secured!”Report

      • Avatar DavidTC in reply to Michael Drew says:

        We just gave the Syrian regime legitimacy because we’re now going to partner with it to control its chemical weapons – which were a useless distraction from the real conflict.

        Uh, no, we’re not. No one’s proposed that at all. _Russia_ is going to partner with them, but Russia already does that.

        Unfortunately the efforts have hit stumbling blocks because there are too many bad actors among the Syrian rebels, and our trust is low. Yet, despite that, our interests are strong. John McCain, one of the leading hawks on Syria before the CW dust-up, was urging lawmakers to strongly back the Syrian rebels with heavy weapons and surface to air missiles, even visiting rebel-occupied areas personally.

        So what’s you’re _actually_ saying is that we had already submerged ourselves in the clusterfuck of supplying weapons to people who hate us, both religious fanatics and wannabe warlords, which, of course, surely wasn’t going to backfire horribly on us _this_ time.

        And Obama managed to sabotage our completely fucking stupid behavior.

        Yes, I’m sure _not_ secretly supplying weapons to Al Qaeda-affiliated rebel groups is going to destroy how the world thinks about us. The world wants us to run around toppling governments by secretly arming random idiots.

        You know, I always thought Obama’s 11-dimensional chess stuff was a joke, but, Jesus H. Christ, what’s the emoticon for a standing ovation?

        It’s as if, on the eve of D-Day, Churchill and FDR had said the whole war was about Hitler’s V-2 rockets.

        Godwin. And a stupid analogy. Our problem with Hitler is that he was _invading other countries_.Report

    • Avatar George Turner in reply to George Turner says:

      Obama will be completely constrained once the Russian boots are wandering around in Syria, doing their UN job, and they’re already at the Russian naval base there, so they don’t have far to drive. Obama can’t order the UN to remove UN forces because Russia and China have a veto on that. He can’t even tell them where they can and cannot be, and he can’t very well fire missiles at important UN arms control inspectors, which is what the Russians will be.

      He disavowed drawing the red line that brought this whole thing on, saying it was drawn by the international community. Putin will note that by gosh, the international community is on the ground in Syria enforcing that red line that Obama did or didn’t draw, and Obama’s unilateral threat to initiate an attack on a UN member state that neither threatens the US or its allies is a violation of international law, and that doing so would make him a war criminal, not to mention being an act of war against Russia, whose troops would be the ones getting shot at.

      Obama can’t even claim that he got hoodwinked into this deal because Kerry has spent the day claiming that he and Obama should share the sole credit for it, and that it was Kerry’s intention all along based on some side conversations at the G-20, following up on important conversations between Obama and Putin, where Obama suggested all this. Nobody in the press is believing a word of that, but still, it’s out there and Kerry is selling it.

      So Obama would have to order a military attack unauthorized by Congress, after he’s made a point of the importance of Congressional approval for it. That attack that would violate international law, even as Obama claims upholding international law is his reasoning for the attack. The attack would ruin any chance at the all important goal of removing Assad’s chemical weapons in a diplomatic solution, a move supported by Hillary Clinton and one that’s the result of Obama’s own brilliant peace plan (according to the current US Secretary of State, Lurch). And the attack would knowingly hit Russian and UN troops. Well, that’s a level of fecklessness that even Obama would have trouble reaching. Nancy Pelosi would probably call for impeachment.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to George Turner says:

        You may be right. What should the world do about Syria, George?Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to George Turner says:

        …Though, 1) the diplomatic track is now certain to result in boots on the ground and not to fail and go back to the military track before doing so, and 2) if CWs-control boots do get on the ground in Syria they’ll be Russian are both assumptions with a considerable degree of uncertainty about them at this point.Report

      • Avatar George Turner in reply to George Turner says:

        The hope is that Putin won’t actually want Russian boots on the ground, or that his public will oppose it because of memories about Afghanistan. However, the Russians aren’t a bit shy about fighting jihadists, nor confused about the need to. If no one else steps up (and I’d anticipate that many countries would be very reluctant to put any troops amid all the savage butchery), it’s very likely that Russians would step in to fill the vacuum, especially as they can always retreat to their naval base and have enjoyed good relations with Assad’s regime and its supporters.

        Perhaps it would help to look at possible outcomes.
        A) the current rebels win
        B) Assad wins.
        C) The stalemate drags on virtually forever.

        A) A victory by the current rebels, is bad for the international community and for Syria because a rebel victory would be extremely bloody, due to both the determination of the Syrian regime supporters not to get decapitated and the determination of many of the rebels to do just that. The rebels would also go through a period of vicious infighting, so the country would remain unstable for some period. Jihadists everywhere would be emboldened, would pick up a new base of operations, and probably cause even more regional problems than Assad did unless some of their supporters (like the GCC) could rein them in.

        If a rebel victory is in the cards, at the very least the world should try to make sure the CW inspectors have time to secure or remove Assad’s chemical weapons before any major rebel gains. If they do, the dire threat posed by a jihadist victory is greatly lessened and the world has much less to worry about. The region will especially have less to worry about because they won’t face twenty years of random nerve gas IED attacks on civilian markets and the like. Russia’s chief fear might be precisely that the weapons would find their way to Chechnya or other republics.

        With a little of the pressure off in terms of complete disaster if the fighting tips against Assad, the observers could in that eventuality also disable or remove his vast numbers of medium range missiles like the Frog-7 and Scud, so that any post-Assad Syria is less of a threat to regional neighbors. His Air Force would probably fly out, perhaps to Iran, Lebanon, or Russia. Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey should prepare to receive a whole lot more refugees.

        B) If Assad wins, it will still be bloody because they greatly fear the jihadists and feel the need to utterly crush them. Then they’ll go back to being an Arab socialist police state – and one that requires a whole lot more purges. However, until this civil war started Kerry and Hillary had praised Assad as a reformer they could work with, so perhaps that outcome isn’t quite so bad. Hezbollah might even go home – to cause some trouble in Lebanon where they’d previously been washed up as a political force.

        However, when the civil war started, it started because so many people in Syria despised Assad’s regime. He suffered defections right and left until the rebel force became infested with jihadist terrorists who frightened barely loyal or disloyal Alawites, Christians, Druze, and even Sunnis into backing the regime out of sheer survival instinct. If Assad wins, virtually removing any real terrorist or Sunni threat to those groups, will the game be back to square one, a country with too many people who want to topple Assad, or will they have by then become fiercely loyal? I can’t offer much to address that point, and I’m not sure most Syrians could, either.

        But if the regime were to win and the battlefield and then collapse internally (or get replaced democratically or overthrown by moderates), the terrorists lose and the Ba’athist party and its police state lose, which would have to count as a huge gain for the world. We could hope, perhaps realistically, for a semi-functional multi-confessional state, somewhat like Iraq, Lebanon, or Jordan. It would perhaps remain pro-Soviet, and perhaps tilt against Israel, but at least it wouldn’t be Syria Syria.

        C), a long protracted war, (a bit like a less organized Iran/Iraq war) isn’t good for any of the Syrians, and may be good or bad for fighting jihadists. More of them might die or get tired of fighting, or more and more might get recruited into the mindset and lifestyle. If Assad’s forces can’t make headway into the eastern desert areas, or the rebels can’t make headway into the strong Alawite and Christian areas in the mountains, this war could easily drag on for years, especially if rebels keep trickling in from the region, the refugee camps, and western Iraq.

        Then there are options past C which take a lot more thought and a lot more effort, like creating a viable and strong third player to squeeze out the current rebels, giving us a much improved war and a better option for the aftermath. An option for even a fourth player might try the same on Assad’s side, though that is probably more difficult than creating a new rebel force because the pro-Syrian government forces have more unity and loyalty than the thousand groups on the rebel side (making them less likely to fall for something obviously the result of foreign meddling). But that might also be much cleaner, kind of like Assad handing power to a natural successor. I might even be possible to put a new face on Assad, somehow, and sell him as fresh to his former enemies and internal critics, but I don’t have much hope for that working.

        Option F is to get both sides to accept some kind of partition, whether through exhaustion, persuasion, or naked force. That’s also a hard sell, but not necessarily an unlikely outcome if neither side can push deep enough into the other’s home regions to take over completely. The downside there is that if the partition is unstable or militarily infeasible, the conflict will just keep flaring up.

        option G is to nuke it from orbit just to be sure.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to George Turner says:

        I don’t think I’d hire you as an advisor, George.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to George Turner says:

        …An analyst, yes, a policy advisor, no.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to George Turner says:

        Assad cannot win, any more than the Serbs won their wars in the Balkans. The Alawites will retreat into their own strongholds. They will still be major players in the larger scheme of things. We can treat Syria pretty much like Yugoslavia for geopolitical purposes: a Russian ally trying to suppress Muslim insurgencies.

        The answer is C. Nobody wins and pretty much everybody loses.Report

      • Avatar George Turner in reply to George Turner says:

        You may be right. What should the world do about Syria, George?

        BTW, lots of one-word answers to that, like “Despair.” ^_^

        Blaise, though it looks unlikely, I think there is a path to an Assad victory as long as he keep plugging away at the rebels. The Serbs were generally winning in the Balkans, though they did get surprised by a strong Croatian counter offensive, as I recall. What stopped a possible long-term Serb victory was outside intervention.

        I think Syria has some similarities to that (or to Libya). If the world intervened with a no-fly zone that morphed into air cover for the rebel areas, the most Assad could possibly hope for is stalemate and partition. If he retains his air power and even sees it reinforced by Russia, he’s just in for a brutal fight to staunch any rebel gains and then the war continues. He may have already largely reached the point of turning things around, having had a string of recent victories aided by Hezbollah (in Aleppo and some other areas).

        The area held by rebels is vast, but I see some things that might work in Assad’s favor. One is that a lot of potential rebels or regime opponents have fled Syria, taking them out of play. Those that are left are stuck in fairly lawless situation, preyed on by rebel jihadists (a sick form of war tourist/terrorist at this point).

        For those living in rebel held areas, reaching an accommodation with the local rebel forces works, but only until those rebel forces move on to other battles and get replaced by a new random batch of jihadists, who will make different demands and steal what stuff is left. No agreement reached with one incoming band will necessarily protect civilians from the next rebel group, and sometimes the rebel groups will directly confront each other over weapons, booty, membership, and ideological purity and religious fervor.

        Life will not be going back to normal in the rebel areas, at best becoming something like the out-of-control militia and jihadist situation in Benghazi. Combine that with the threat of Assad’s air attacks on rebel areas, and it’s a big inducement for any anti-Assad families to just pack up and leave. Ramping up Western humanitarian support for the refugees outside of Syria will probably only accelerate that trend. Glorified street gangs can fight fiercely, but they’re not good at providing basic services.

        So Assad is helped by the rebel’s basic lack of organizational skills and their tendency to conduct too many atrocities, by their nature stirring up instability and causing shortages in areas under rebel control, while they simultaneously fail to provide sewer, gas, and electric. And they include to many brutal savages who post video of their glorious victories on the Internet, where Assad’s side can use them to maintain staunch anti-rebel sentiments. The shift of the rebellion from massive and popular anti-Assad demonstrations and military defections to what’s become a largely terrorist/jihadist face is probably what saved Assad’s regime so far.

        That situation looked set to change as the West started to find the courage to support the rebels, but the courage was wavering because of the very nature of too many of the rebels we were asked to support. “Let’s not be Al Qaeda’s air wing” resonated.

        Now the West will be in the uncomfortable and possibly politically unsaleable position of arming and training rebels to attack the Western (or Russian) forces we’re sending in to guard Assad’s weapons from the rebels we’re training. That will strike too many people as an absurd thing to do. Add a few too many rebel atrocity videos and outside support will simply evaporate outside committed Sunni countries. If the Russians on the ground can produce or manufacture convincing evidence that the gas attack was actually carried out by the rebels or outside intelligence services (such as Saudi Arabia’s) in a bid to get the US to strike Assad, Western intervention to support the rebellion can all but be written off.

        So if Assad can secure the major cities that are outside the Alawite and Christian heartland (Damascus, Aleppo, Homs), however brutal that might be, he’ll be in a good position to eventually win the whole thing. Freed from worries about Western interference, and having shored up his own support, he can concentrate his forces on the smaller rebel-held cities to the east and take them one by one, using his air power to keep them isolated and prevent effective mutual support by rebel forces. I would predict one year, maybe two, to reduce the rebellion to a relatively minor but bloody insurgency, similar to Western Iraq during the last several years of that war (and continuing somewhat to today).

        That’s of course assuming that Assad is smart, exploits the fear of the rebels, wins hearts and minds, and keeps the West from taking any effective counter-actions, and that the rebels stay largely lawless, violent, and disorganized. Everyone in Syria used to live under Assad’s regime (or his father’s), and while many certainly didn’t like it, it is something they grew up doing. Those who really, really fear the regime’s retribution are likely to flee in the face of Syrian army advances, and those that don’t will stay and try to get back to normal. In contrast, Assad’s supporters really do fear that a rebel victory will either cost them their lives or condemn them to an eternity of strict Sunni Islamist rule.

        So unless we create a viable third or fourth horse in the game, it could play out into an Assad victory. If Assad’s really smart he’d follow that up with some face saving liberalization, following either the Chinese model (economic reforms under firm party control) or the post-Soviet model, imagining himself as the new Putin, winning free elections while remaining firmly in charge.

        What the Administration’s critical mistake may have been over the past two or three weeks is to expend all the outrage over the video on an attempt to go for air strikes, instead of using that outrage to build broad support for going all in on creating a disciplined, viable, rebel force, perhaps with sizable contingents from real armies, all but begging the Syrian regime to use more gas to try and stave off their coming defeat.Report

  3. Avatar Damon says:

    “The President Goes Prime Time on Syria: Initial Reactions”


  4. Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

    Good thoughts by all. Just one quibble. Tim says if Congress says no, future presidents will just act without asking. That may well be true, but the alternative he seems to imply is that it all becomes pro forma, so that a presidential request isn’t really a request because Congress has disabowed its own authority and discretion. Neither outcome is desirable; both give too much power to the president.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

      Tim’s right, Confronted with a bad situation, Obama pushed it into the Congress to expose just how unpopular any strike would be. If America was any less sick of war, he might not have taken this step. But if Congress won’t grant him sufficient mandate to act, he can now rest reasonably easy, knowing Madison’s system saved him from putting his shoe in a political pile of doo-doo.

      What Congress must do, and I believe will do, is to compose some sort of authorisation which puts Syria on a chemical disarmament timetable. Milestones, of a sort. Here’s the rub, though: Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons are enormous. A chemical weapons expert on NPR last night said it might take a year to clean it all up. There are at least hundreds of tons of such munitions laying about, probably thousands. That’s trouble. They’d have to set up incinerators in place — in the midst of an ongoing civil war? A quixotic notion at best. And the rebels have overrun several of Assad’s chemical bunkers, we’re pretty sure the rebels have them too. I doubt the rebels would be willing to turn over their stockpiles of chemical weapons, not after being gassed, they won’t.

      And there’s the issue of criminal prosecutions. War crimes have been committed, If Congress screws this up, and they will to a great extent, Obama will use what little mandate they’ll grant him, which will be more than none — to get Assad, Congress is weak and lacks any initiative to act on its own. For at least five decades, they’ve avoided responsibility for making the Tough Decisions, deferring to the Executive and the Judiciary.

      Tim’s right. If anything, he’s understated the problem, Future presidents will act without the consent of Congress, not because it’s become an Imperial Presidency — but because Congress is too lazy, fearful and partisan to act in concert with the other branches of government.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to BlaiseP says:

        You emphasize that Tim is right. I agree, and in fact said do, with the words “that may well be true.”

        I disagree, however, with your last sentence. The problem is the imperial presidency. It’s not that Congress is weak and fearful, but that it is not composed of national representatives, but solely of state-level and sub-state-level representatives. So local interest prevails over national interest, repeatedly, in all domains (and when national interest legislation gets passed, it is nearly always at the price of numerous local issues added on).

        Congressmembers cannot successfully buck that system. Those who try to are more likely to lose re-election bids; those who go along with the focus on local interests tend to win re-election bids. Over time, that process inevitably means Congress is always populated predominantly by local interest representatives.

        This wasn’t a problem vis a vis the presidency once upon a time, because the party caucus system that selected party nominees was dominated by party bigwigs, including members of Congress, and most often they selected controllable nominees. Now we have the primary system, and you and I get to participate in selecting the nominees, and that process changes the type of candidate who wins the nomination. Shy controllable types are squeezed out pretty quickly, and the bold and arrogant–even narcissistic–are the winners. So when we get to the ballot box, all we’re left with is imperial-minded presidents.

        If we want to solve this problem of congressional reluctance/fear/inability to control the president, we need to give up our right to select presidential nominees. Really, it’s high time we shifted to a parliamentary/PM model, but obviously that’s not about to happen.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP says:

        Huh? This isn’t acerbic. It all happens to be based on historical fact. Not an unkind word in it. By saying Tim is right, I’m making the General Antithesis, and elaborating on it, 😉Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to BlaiseP says:

        Thank you. I’m glad you said so. Small steps on my part, trying to be less acerbic.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP says:

        I wonder if we’d benefit from a parliamentary system. Problem with parliaments, they become the playthings of extremist minority factions: cases in point, the UK and Israel, especially Israel.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to BlaiseP says:


        That depends a lot on what you set as the threshold–minimum pr0portion of the vote–for gaining seats in the parliament. With a higher threshold you can hold off some of those groups. Most supporters of a parliamentary system argue for low vote thresholds, because their preference is based on the idea that parliaments are more representative of the overall population than our system. For my part, I’ve never really bought that argument. I think parliamentary systems tend to downplay various local interests, which offsets–in my mind–the representation argument (I think local interests are too dominant in Congress, but I’m not thrilled about the prospect of eliminating them entirely). Because of that I’ve only slowly and reluctantly come to support a parliamentary system, but for an entirely different reason, control of the executive. Separation of powers–that great American ideal–is a failure. It was only patched over for a time by party elite control of the presidential nominating process; a process not part of the formal constitutional structure. As for representation, I’m less concerned than most of my colleagues with whether or not every fractional group gets a seat in the legislature.

        Note, though, that I’m in the distinct minority on both these issues, so take my words with that caveat.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP says:

        The Constitution’s signal weakness is that it takes the viewpoint of Congress. It attempts to limit the powers of the presidency, presuming Congress would speak with one voice, jealously guarding its powers to create laws. Over time, especially since the Civil War and the triumph of federalism, the Constitution has largely been turned inside out. Now the president does pretty much as he likes, ignoring Congress’ intramural bickering.

        I don’t know why the US Congress doesn’t act more like a parliament, acting in restraint of an Imperial President. The Constitution certainly gives them such powers. The Speakers occupy the roles of prime ministers, after a fashion. But while the War Powers Act is still law, they have the luxury of bickering and shit flinging — and doing nothing, because they’re never held accountable for their toleration of Imperium at the other end of the street in the White House.Report

      • Avatar George Turner in reply to BlaiseP says:

        A foreign dictator gases his own people, and you guys start talking up regime change at home. How does that happen? ^_^Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP says:

        George, let the grownups talk for a while. One of us is a professor of political science and it’s not me. You think the President of the United States of America can be embarrassed. I don’t. He doesn’t care what you think. A live band plays his fucking song when he enters the room. You don’t embarrass people like that.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to BlaiseP says:

        How does that happen? ^_^

        Oh, I don’t know. Maybe we’re just reasonably mature enough to be able to see beyond the big media topic of the moment, in contrast to some poor benighted folksReport

      • Avatar Kim in reply to BlaiseP says:

        Because unlike Georgey, we can recognize Wag the Dog when we see it.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to BlaiseP says:

        Wag The Dog is whenever a president that someone who saw that movie (or is familiar with it) doesn’t like authorizes a military strike that someone who saw that movie (or is familiar with it) doesn’t think is justified.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to BlaiseP says:

        Will, I’d like to tell you that they have a pill that can cure that cynicism, but then I realized it’s not cynicism at all.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to BlaiseP says:

        except i’m not talkinga bout obama doing it. the nsa is perfectly capable of making distractions…Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to BlaiseP says:

        Good lord, kimmie, rein it in already.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to BlaiseP says:

        Will, I’d like to tell you that they have a pill that can cure that cynicism, but then I realized it’s not cynicism at all.

        Which means the cure is Jack Daniels. Just ask Stan Marsh.Report

    • Avatar Marchmaine in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

      There’s also the possible likelihood that a No vote restores a certain expectation that congress ought to be consulted; at a minimum, a (compelling) case must be made.

      Part of the President’s problem is that he won’t make a case for specific action that we/congress can adjudicate wise… he is trying to make a case for freedom of action, and that’s more latitude than we’re willing to give him.

      Even if we assume that congress is allergic to participation in foreign affairs and desperately wants to avoid this part of its duty, a No vote right now would still be better for all than a Yes vote. Will there even be a vote?Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to Marchmaine says:

        There’s also the possible likelihood that a No vote restores a certain expectation that congress ought to be consulted; at a minimum, a (compelling) case must be made.

        That’s the ideal outcome, anyway. I want to hope for it, but pessimistically I suspect Tim’s suggested outcome is more probable. Sigh.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Marchmaine says:

        There’s also the possible likelihood that a No vote restores a certain expectation that congress ought to be consulted; at a minimum, a (compelling) case must be made.

        But a yes vote here destroys the possibility of the creation of such an expectation? Isn’t it possible that the expectation (a new one in recent historical context) of consultation might be created by the consultation itself in the context of a strike this limited, and that the Congress’ determination of yea or nay in this case is seen just as its view of the particular merits of this request one way or the other – i.e. not dispositive of the creation of the precedent?Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

      P.S. : You’re right, too. If Congress won’t act, it will become an Imperial Presidency — by default.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to BlaiseP says:

        Sorry I didn’t see this before I posted. I would have responded with a less acerbic tone. And again I note that I don’t think Tim is wrong–or at least he’s got a real good basis for believing–that future presidents will read a no vote as a message to just avoid Congress. But maybe, just maybe, Marchmaine is right, and there’s the most faintest of all possibilities that this could be the beginning of a reversal of the imperial presidency (but if Watergate and Iran-Contra couldn’t initiate a reversal…)Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP says:

        What would it take for Congress to grow a Proverbial Pair? I say Follow the Money. Reform the budgetary process and we’d worm that hog.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to BlaiseP says:

        you’d better shoot Hoover first (yes, I know, the original one is dead. the new one, capische?).Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to BlaiseP says:

        Reform the budgetary process and we’d worm that hog.

        I agree this would help, although not be a completely satisfactory reining in of the prez all by itself. But unfortunately it has its own risks.

        The problem at present is that the president’s statutory authority to submit a budget proposal gives him strategic advantage over Congress by setting the agenda. The whole machinery of OMB is designed for the purpose of pressing that advantage. This rather inverts the Framers’ view that the president was supposed to be more about policy implementation (at least domestically) than policy development. (Of course they also gave POTUS the state of the union requirement, merely intended to be an informational report, but inevitably drafted into the service of agenda-setting.)

        But Congress gave the president this statutory authority because they couldn’t effectively manage the budget process on their own. Each committee authorized its own spending, and the Budget Committee had to try to make all their demands work. They couldn’t simply override them because then they wouldn’t have enough votes for passage of the overall budget. Woodrow Wilson recognizes this problem in his dissertation (Congressional Government), in 1885. Writing about the House, he said;

        … divided up, as it were, into forty-seven seignories, in each of which a Standing Committee is the court-baron and its chairman lord-proprietor. These petty barons, some of them not a little powerful, but none of them within reach [of] the full powers of rule, may at will exercise an almost despotic sway within their own shires, and may sometimes threaten to convulse even the realm itself.

        So we have to end the current problem without resorting back to that. I’d propose–wholly off the cuff–a superbudget committee, whose task would be demanding enough that they’d probably need to be excused/excluded from service on any other committees. To replace the legwork done by OMB–which inevitably takes the prez’s perspective) they’d need to beef up the OMB (which has a more congressional perspective). There’d still be the problem of getting enough legislators to sign on, if they didn’t get the specifics they or their committee want, but by making it a more coherent process, and one back by the expertise of the CBO, I think–emphasize, kinda sorta hopefully think–this would be less of an obstacle than in the past, just by giving all legislators an understanding that their own losses are not simply arbitrary.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP says:

        The Wilson quote is particularly cogent and applicable to the problem. The problem is, as you say, The Budget itself, a Brobdingnag-ian monstrosity nobody truly understands — or even conceptualise. Might have worked back when the nation was younger. Recommendations for improvements are the province of accountants and tax attorneys. Any time a cadre of middlemen arise to steer ordinary people through a process, they’re the only people worth consulting on a given subject. The rest of us might have opinions but they’re the ones who deal with the complexities.

        Continuing resolutions, omnibus spending bills, it’s gotten so crazy I wonder if we need some separate branch of government to deal with it all.Report

    • Avatar Kolohe in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

      I’m not sure what your saying here J@m3z. If Congress votes ‘No’, no means no. If the President nonetheless still acts, then it’s up to Congress to impeach. Only then do we have the real test of Presidential vs Congressional power.

      And that’s still well within system parameters – impeachment is fundamentally a political tool, not a legal one. Impeachment has always been dependent on the relative prestige of the current President vs Congress plus whatever specific political question is to be answered. So, for instance, there’s no way Ford was going to be able to go against the will of Congress when the South Vietnamese were shut off, but on the flip side, Reagan was able to get away with contravening Congress and arming the Honduran Contras. Both Allied Force and Odyssey Dawn were of questionable (at best) legal footing, but both were over quick enough before the political will to find them unacceptable were able to be fully formed. No one was ever going to get impeached over the wars with the Native Americans, though JQ Adams came closest for *not* going to war with them.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to Kolohe says:


        You’re right. I almost took the comment to this next level of analysis, but decided it was long enough already. I’m glad you did. I would only note that since the president has already made the request, instead of just acting unilaterally, the no vote is the necessary first step in initiating this sequence (while a yes vote aborts the sequence).Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

      There’s an actual situation at hand, however Tim or J@m3z might construe it. This isn’t the Ur-Request-For-AUMF. Hence, it might be a situation where, all things considered, even if Tim doesn’t want the president to ultimately use force, he does want Congress to approve the request as a means to increase or preserve leverage (though he doesn’t say that that I can tell, so I’m not saying he feels that way). In any case, Tim does not say that in no case should a president’s request for an AUMF be denied because of reputational consequences as a general principle. He’s not saying it should be pro-forma. If he thought that, he would tell us. Thinking that this AUMF ought to be passed because not doing so would have certain consequences (which he views as a situation created by the president himself, but in any case the consequences are specific to this situation) that lead him to that view is not a commitment to the view that no president’s request for an AUMF should ever be denied.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Michael Drew says:

        Tim’s point, and James’ elaboration upon it, are somewhat more sophisticated. Let us moot a scenario in a hypothetical nation where over time the Grand Poobah’s powers to make war have gradually increased because his Parliament of Dunces have grown fat and lazy. In this miserable nation, the PoD controls the purse strings and could cut off the Poobah’s wars by refusing to fund them, whatever other mandate they might have given the Poobah.

        Tim’s core sentence is this: Now that the ball is in Congress’s court, it’s got to return it with something more than an unhelpful “no.”

        James’ core sentence: a presidential request isn’t really a request because Congress has disabowed its own authority and discretion. Neither outcome is desirable; both give too much power to the president.

        If the PoD says “no” and the Poobah calls up his jet fighters and tells them they better earn their pay and drop their bombs between the minarets down the Casbah way, the American PoD has a long history of fecklessness. Iraq, case in point. The US Congress never cut off funds for that war, Everyone knew it was a hideous blunder and nobody did a damned thing about it. Vietnam War finally ended because Congress cut off the funds.

        Parliaments of Dunces can stop an ongoing war but for some reason, they never do until it affects their election outcomes.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

        Uh, I’m not sure I totally follow, Blaise.

        All I’d say is this: Tim’s “core sentence” could be expressing a general maxim, or it could be expressing his sense of this particular situation, based on his assessment of its unique dynamics. Generally, we should assume he’s making the more narrow claim unless he tells us he’s issuing the general injunction, and besides that, his specification of the present situation with the word “now” should further reinforce our sense that his statement is meant to apply to this situation, not all situations.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Michael Drew says:

        So stipulated. Sorta wish he’d turn up to expand on his point.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

        That would be good, but regardless it’s the case that, whatever Tim’s view, one can believe that Congress should approve an AUMF here (perhaps conditioned on exhausting the diplomatic track, as you suggest above or below) due to reputation/credibility concerns, and/or to increase leverage, while not believing that always, once a president has requested an AUMF, the Congress must return an authorization, or a non-no vote of some kind as Tim says, because of those reasons. Holding that view in this case does not amount to a position that authorization for force should be pro-forma once a president has asked for it.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Michael Drew says:

        My guess (a total WAG at this point) says Congress will give POTUS something, not nothing. Only the threat of American intervention has made any difference in this situation.

        Russia has called Kerry’s bluff without the requisite high cards to pull it off. At a purely cynical level, sheer Schadenfreude, I would crow with dark glee if Russia ends up sending in its own troops to dismantle Assad’s chem stockpiles. Someone’s got to do it. Putin wants to play poker with this fight, Iran wants to meddle — let ’em put their goddamn boots on the ground, wade into that hornets’ nest, take the role of the Americans trying to sort out the Iraqi Civil War.

        Congress could simply give POTUS a 30 day window for statecraft to do what it can. After 30 days, the House and Senate Intelligence committees convene, receive a progress briefing on disarmament — and let POTUS’ war machine off the leash if they don’t like what they hear.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to Michael Drew says:

        He’s not saying it should be pro-forma.

        I hope my comment didn’t signal that I thought he was saying it should be pro forma. I absolutely do not think he implied that. Rather, I think that is the likely outcome in this case, although Michael’s caveat about different types of force authorization requests is undoubtedly relevant to this discussion.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

        You’re saying that the likely outcome in a sequence starting from reality as it is today, with the water that’s under the bridge in fact under the bridge, where somehow authorization ends up being granted, is that, in that situation, with that history (i.e. Congress very clearly exhibiting a strong initial disinclination to approve that in this scenario would then have been assuaged and reversed by some combination of argumentation and new or newly understood facts), such an authorization would be a pro forma authorization?

        I don’t think that’s a tenable position. I also don’t really understand how just one particular example of a certain type of approval could be pro forma. it seems like the pro forma designation applies to a class of decisions, at least for the most part, or not at all. If one instance could be one way, but subsequent or former ones may or may not be that way, then of all things that that one instance (or the class of decisions, for that matter) are likely to be, pro forma is not one of them. That’s what it is to not be pro forma: particular or one-off.Report

      • Avatar Tim Kowal in reply to Michael Drew says:

        An unhelpful “no” from Congress would remind the President and those Americans paying attention the reason why the President generally is the sole organ in foreign affairs. An unhelpful “no” would be a dereliction of duty of each individual no-voter. But for the institution itself, just another vote, and a reminder that it’s not really designed to make determinations of this nature. I’d say this is a fine example of the distinction between a strike and a war, and why only one requires Congressional approval beyond purse strings. A strike is clearly what we’re talking about here – an “unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.” If that’s true – and the President basically affirmed in in his speech – then “weariness” is a nonissue. There’s nothing to be weary about. It’ll be over before bedtime, and certainly before the next election. If it were a “war,” then having this debate in Congress and in the public would be important, because then if we are indeed too “weary” to see it through an election cycle or two, then the effort will be worse than wasted.

        What the Congress should have done is taken the President at his word when he said he had the authority to do this but timidly still wanted Congress’s blessing. It should never have been an entrée to tell him “no.” It should have taken him at his word that this was a limited strike, not a war, and thus not really a political issue for Congress or an opportunity to make the President kiss the Congressional ring. The only debate it should have had was over what action to take, sunsets, resources and materiel, etc. It should not have taken this as an opportunity it never appropriately was – i.e., to tell him “no.” By doing so, the Congress puts both the President and the country in an untenable position, in which an already timid President has said he would and could act, but now has a political Sword of Damocles hanging over his head if he follows through. Congress members should have put aside their own feelings about the strike and backed up and bucked up the President. They might have scolded him behind closed doors for having gotten out ahead of himself, but now that he’s there, he’s got to follow through. I tend to think it was in fact a bad idea for him to ask for Congress’s blessing – and that feeling is confirmed by the past couple of weeks. But having done so, there’s no statesman-like play for our representatives other than to support him.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to Michael Drew says:

        Michael, you’re focusing on the single event. I’m looking at the historical development of both the war power specifically and the imperial presidency in general. The presidency has in the past half century devised a number of ways to get around congressional approval. The list includes playing games with the hopelessly toothless War Powers Act (E.g., Reagan/Grenada), ignoring Congress’s refusal to even vote on action (E.g., Clinton/Kosovo), issuing an ever greater number of executive orders (E.g., damn near all of them), issuing signing statements (most notably, but not alone, W), the development of the “plebiscitary presidency” that makes itself the center of the American political system instead of Congress, and demanding the public’s loyalty to the man, more than to the office (a century in the making), implementing heightened regulatory review by OMB to assert more control over the direction of the bureaucracy, in an effort to limit Congress’s effective authority by developing what some scholars call “administrative government)) (E.g., Nixon and Reagan, most notably, but every president since), and the “regulatory prompt” by which the OMB demands regulatory changes from bureaucracies (begun by Clinton, used by presidents since).*

        If I gave the impression that I thought it was this one-time make or break issue, that’s my bad. But I do think it’s an important moment in this overall process, or has the potential to be.
        * Regulatory review and regulator prompts are problematic. On the one hand, presidents are the titular head of the agencies, and ought to have a fair amount of control and directive authority. This was often lacking in the past, for reasons related to my earlier comments about nominee selection. Each candidate member viewing him/herself (mostly him, back then) as a potential nominee, they were more eager to curry favor with party bigwigs in Congress than with the president. That’s why renowned presidential scholar Richard Neustadt said the agency secretaries were the president’s natural enemies. Because of primary selection of nominees, that’s no longer true, and that’s probably a good thing. But too much control means the power to shape active policy, and that is supposed to be Congress’s role. So somewhere there’s a fine line, or gray area, separating too little control from too much control. I don’t know if we’ve crossed it or not. By itself I wouldn’t worry much about the regulatory review/prompt innovation, but in conjunction with the other elements of the imperial presidency, it becomes another symptom.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to Michael Drew says:

        An unhelpful “no” would be a dereliction of duty of each individual no-voter.

        Do you mean all “no” votes are unhelpful, or that there’s a certain kind of “no” vote that’s unhelpful. That’s not a cricism, but I’m just trying to better grasp your meaning.

        It should never have been an entrée to tell him “no.”

        I vigorously disagree with this, but I suspect we’re basing our respective positions on irreconcilable values commitments–different fundamental concerns, so the ability of either of us to persuade the other is almost certainly vanishingly remote.Report

      • Avatar Tim Kowal in reply to Michael Drew says:

        By an “unhelpful ‘no’” I mean a vote that leaves the President’s commitments (i.e., to a “red line” and that he has authority to act) wholly unfulfilled, and leaves the office and the man embarrassed. A “no, but something else” might work as long as the something else allows the man to keep his commitments and save face.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to Michael Drew says:

        Thank you, Tim. I will note that I disagree, but I appreciate the clarification and will not use it as an excuse to argue your point.Report

      • Avatar George Turner in reply to Michael Drew says:

        Tim, at this point the President’s embarrassment is beyond the Congress’s poor power to add or detract. He sought their authorization against the inclinations of his senior advisors, and did so without first taking the time to meet and know some of the people in Congress. Then he went golfing, and when he came back they hadn’t bought into the idea that they had to authorize strikes to defend a red line that Obama had just denied painting. To try and sway them, the administration made it clear that their strikes would be strong, yet weak, crippling, yet unbelievably small, aimed at sending Assad the clear message that we kind of like him (otherwise we’d actually strike at him). At that point even supporters like Mitch McConnel and Diane Feinstein jumped ship. The farce is so bad that John Stewart could turn it into a mini-series on A&E just so he could hit all the high points.Report

  5. Avatar North says:

    All in all not a horrible outcome for Obama or the country.
    -We don’t have to commit troops.
    -We don’t even have to lob expensive missiles,
    -Syria has both acknowledged they have chemical weapons and committed to signing the convention against them. That is a very significant diplomatic victory.
    -Russia is now invested in the securing of said CW’s, the norm against CW use has been strengthened.
    -If Assad or another Syrian actor uses CW’s again Russia will have an entire omelet on their face. Assad -really- doesn’t want to tork off the Russians (the Iranians, remember, are pretty sketchy about CW’s ~they had them used ON them in their war against Iraq). Incentives for the Syrians are coming into strong alignment against CW use.
    -Some people are inveigling about the diminishment of US prestige or credibility. Since they have been doing this inveigling since, roughly, 2008 I am of the opinion that this can be disregarded as the empty canard it is. The prestige and credibility of the US can buy you a cup of coffee at Starbucks but only if you chip about 3.50 in cash.
    -Obama comes out of this looking muddling and ad-hoc. Anyone gibbering about 4 dimensional chess is out of their minds. The best Obama can hope for politically is that this will simply fade away and let him get back to domestic policy issues where he’s got the stronger hand.
    -Obama looking muddling and ad-hoc will have an impact on the electorate somewhere between bupkiss and zilch. The public cares about the results and if this results in no more nasty CW strikes at no blood and treasure cost to the US and no additional foreign entanglements then the whole subject will vanish like snow in the summer from our collective minds; except on the right where it’ll join the other stars of the treasured conservative constellation of treasonous impeachment worthy offenses of the Obama administration (Acorn! Benghazi! Fast & Furious! IRS Scandals! Etc!)Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to North says:

      One man’s muddling is another man’s orienteering. Kinda helps, when all you have is a compass and a map, to stop every so often and do your angle checking and course correction.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to North says:

      -Obama comes out of this looking muddling and ad-hoc. Anyone gibbering about 4 dimensional chess is out of their minds. The best Obama can hope for politically is that this will simply fade away and let him get back to domestic policy issues where he’s got the stronger hand.
      -Obama looking muddling and ad-hoc will have an impact on the electorate somewhere between bupkiss and zilch. The public cares about the results and if this results in no more nasty CW strikes at no blood and treasure cost to the US and no additional foreign entanglements then the whole subject will vanish like snow in the summer from our collective minds

      Could not agree with this bit more. There’s an outside chance they were really looking for the diplomatic out based on credible threats starting at some point before Monday, but there’s zero concrete info that should make anyone give that more than about 20% probability that’s true. As you say *no one* should be stridently arguing it’s the case: Occam points clearly to they stumbled into this in just the way it look like they did. It should be our default assumption that what this looks like is more or less exactly what it is (while acknowledging it’s possible that it isn’t quite).

      I’d only caution that a good degree of your assessment of the substantive outcome is very premature at this point. Russia hasn’t really committed to anything yet; certainly nothing sure to have singificant verifiable results that they have an unshirkable stake in seeing through.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to Michael Drew says:

        I’m being optimistic, I concede, but I think optimism is warranted. Assuming that Russia and Syria play games with the deal and things circle around and around without the weapons being fully removed or destroyed. Assuming that Assad and Russia like that state of affairs they’re heavily incented to make sure the CW’s don’t get deployed. If they do then Obama gets a huge boost to his standing at direct cost to Russia and essentially would get to try and do a do over on his whole march to war building a coalition and sell it to congress shtick.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to Michael Drew says:

        I’m inclined to agree with North. Even if the weapons don’t get removed, it seems that even with a lot of playacting on Russia’s and Syria’s part that the probability of actually using them diminishes significantly.

        And a good point on Obama essentially getting a free do-over.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

        Definitely agree on the do-over and the general value of this. I wasn’t arguing that the benefits aren’t manifold, only that the ink on the deal making the arrangements for the kinds of concrete outcomes you describe (I think unintentionally) as pretty much accomplished (“Syria… committed to signing the convention against them. That is a very significant diplomatic victory.
        -Russia is now invested in the securing of said CW’s, the norm against CW use has been strengthened.” etc.) is not dry, and that’s because it’s still in the bottle. None of that has actually happened yet. It’s all contingent on this going ahead as envisioned. I think you meant to imply that conditional, though. But it’s not quite actually there.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to Michael Drew says:

        Yes I think you have a good point MD, I would say that there’s a flimsy disincentive that has come into being merely by the fact of Russia proposing and Syria agreeing to this plan. The admission, for instance, by Syria that they -have- chemical weapons is not something they can now take back and that has a certain legal and moral power. Russia and Syria could, absolutely, reverse course, balk etc but now that the idea is out there (and best of all it’s a Russian idea, the Russians were the ones who jumped all over Kerry’s flub) rescinding or violating it will redound on Russia as well as Obama.

        So, in summary: it could be a considerable diplomatic success but at this very moment it’s still potentially a mild success at least compared to Obama’s position prior to Uncle Vlad deciding to jump into the rowboat with him.

        But yes, it’s still very very early to tell.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

        You’re right about the admission, which is why I replaced your mention of it with elipsis – you weren’t wrong to list that as done. But more broadly, I’m just being an annoying pedant re: you not explicitly saying that this was all conditioned on things going forward as envisioned. I think you meant to imply that condition. I just think that’s in somewhat more doubt right now than I get the sense you do, is the only reason i pressed the point.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to Michael Drew says:

        I’d say on your narrow point you’re possibly pedantic but also definitely correct. I wrote it as being far more a done deal than it actually is and Lord(Lady?) knows that things are fluid in Russian and Syria.Report

    • Avatar George Turner in reply to North says:

      -Syria has both acknowledged they have chemical weapons and committed to signing the convention against them. That is a very significant diplomatic victory.

      Syria has just gained international legitimacy, and it’s chemical weapons have just moved from being a dead hooker in the closet to something the international community, in concert with the Syrians, will wisely “manage”. Sitting down and having a nice dinner with Assad, which used to be perfectly acceptable, had become as unthinkable as dancing with Hitler. Suddenly hanging out with him is back to being a journalistic coup.

      It’s like we just gave him a web redemption.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to George Turner says:

        Since Obama’s goal was to shore up the norm that CW’s are unacceptable, or to put it in your analogy to reinforce the norms that dead hookers should be managed by the international community, then this development would represent a success.

        Various neocons and liberal interventionists are trying to move the goalposts to claim that this won’t fix Syria the only logical response is to shrug “wasn’t the goal, propose a fix for it yourself and send your children to go enforce it”. And leave them to splutter.

        And as to Obama being embarrassed, meh, who gives a damn even if they honestly think it’s true? The right wingers? I guess, they’ll feel emboldened and charge off to get their asses handed to them on the next domestic fight. I hear they’ve given up entirely on the CR and punted it to December so now they’re gonna show down over the debt ceiling? Pass the popcorn.Report

      • Avatar DavidTC in reply to George Turner says:

        Various neocons and liberal interventionists are trying to move the goalposts to claim that this won’t fix Syria the only logical response is to shrug “wasn’t the goal, propose a fix for it yourself and send your children to go enforce it”. And leave them to splutter.

        If the goal was to ‘fix Syria’, there’s no way that the targeted bombing Obama was talking about would have done that _anyway_. That was _explicitly_ agreed to by _everyone_ just a week ago.

        Everyone is indeed moving the goalposts. There literally never _was_ any sort of plan to fix Syria here, and people pretending there were are talking total nonsense.

        Obama stated he wanted to show Syria that CWs were not acceptable and could not be used. That was it. That was the entirety of what he said he was going to do.

        And he’s apparently managed to that _without committing a single US resource_. At all. Not a single boot, not a single bomb, nothing at all. He glared at an ally of Russia, and Russia, sensing things were a little out of control here, figured out _they_ better fix this problem.

        What a total failure. At least in the interventionists, aka the ‘We must use bombs to show how big our penises are’, sense.

        And now we just _didn’t_ randomly bomb a middle-east country, making ourselves enemies in 20 years. If we’re not careful, we’ll run out wars.Report

  6. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    Terrible speechwriting. Pitifully constructed rhetoric. Here was Obama’s one turn at bat, his one big sermon from the Bully Pulpit. He whiffed it. Cringeworthy, sing-song cadences.

    Colour me unimpressed. Tim Kowal sums up my thoughts on the matter.Report

  7. Avatar E.C. Gach says:

    This post hits on something I didn’t mention above, which is that the policy toward Syria remains as incoherent as ever. The President listed several goals, and harkened back to many different values and principles, just about all of which are in conflict with one another.

    “If the speech was intended to sum up the case for war against Syria, it seemed mostly to provide the sharpest summation of Obama’s central paradox. Though the president seems personally upset by the chemical-weapons attacks, he knows Americans are weary of war and has little apparent appetite for it himself, so he has to play it safe. That means he does things like promise American boots won’t be on the ground, and insists Assad can’t touch America.

    But those arguments undermine the case for war, too. 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?”Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to E.C. Gach says:

      Syria isn’t amenable to a coherent policy. Syria is a dead nation. It played with fire when it tried to occupy Lebanon. Now it has become Lebanon.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to E.C. Gach says:

      I agree with BlaiseP, somethings aren’t amenable to a coherent policy. Nobody outside of Iran, Russia, and China wants to openly support Assad. They might secretly hope he wins or they might hope he looses but he has been too bloody in his crackdown to warrant open support even from other Arab League nations. At the same time nobody wants to support the Syrian opposition because it consists of a bunch of disorganized factions and most countries are probably skpetical of their ability to come together and create a new Syria if Assad falls. A victory of the Syrian opposition is probably an Islamist victory since they are the most organzied aspects of the opposition. Nobody really wants to support them becasue they are showing signs of being not exactly great at governing either. The NYT had an article about an assault on a Christian city by Islamist forces today. Openly siding with the Opposition but not providing aid or recognition is mealy-mouthed and impotent also.

      Some utopians want to bring both sides to the peace table and work out a compromise if the NYT letters to the editor are believable. I think these people could be safely called morons since its obvious that both Assad and the opposition are going for total victory.

      A coherent policy towards Syria besides a vague hope that the entire thing will end soon is a political impossibility.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to LeeEsq says:

        LeeEsq sums it up pretty well. That said, a coherent policy for the region is possible — if the parties involved, both great and small, delete the colonial borders from their plans.

        The BlaiseP 2x Theory states it takes roughly twice as long to fix a problem as it’s been going on, politically. That means Syria will be fixed in about 150 years.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Reiterating a point I’ve made before, I don’t see Islamists gaining the upper hand in Syria. They’re useful idiots, most of them, idealistic young men from all over, come to do what young men do when the bullets start flying. The same could be said of our troops and leaders, some years ago, when everyone was rah-rah to whack Osama and Saddam.

        Outsiders never last in such situations. The Vietnamese diplomat Le Duc Tho once wryly responded to American threats by saying “You will leave. We will stay.” The jihaadi have already made themselves unwelcome in many circles. They may have important backers but they’re not Syrian. Curiously, when Al Qaeda came to Afghanistan, they made sure to marry into the Pashtun culture. They planned to stay.

        In any event, folks, don’t worry about the Islamists overmuch. They always screw things up. Syria is ancient. Its cities go back into prehistory. Syria has seen ’em come and seen ’em go. It’s also the home to most of the major Islamic heresies, of which Alawism is only one.Report

      • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Forced partition actually is probably the least of all evils. A Kosovo situation or for that matter how the Greeks and Turks did partitioning. Swap people, move them around and then stick Russian boots on the ground to enforce the peace. I mean, it might even salve Russia’s anger over the whole Yugoslavia thing.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to LeeEsq says:

        They’ll need plenty of salve. And bandages and sutures and bags of saline and forceps and O2. If the Russians ride in to the rescue of their mad dog Assad, they’ll be stuck there for the next two decades.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to LeeEsq says:

        then stick Russian boots on the ground to enforce the peace. I mean, it might even salve Russia’s anger over the whole Yugoslavia thing.

        The Afghan Trap 2.0? Devious, Nob. Very clever.Report

      • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to LeeEsq says:

        At the risk of sounding callous, from a purely real politik point of view, isn’t that a good thing? Making Russia expend resources going after Assad means reducing their likelihood of going on a rampage in central Asia, where the real resources are.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Russia’s not going to be ‘going after Assad’, they would protect him because of the common cause he’s made with Syrian Christians, for whom Russia has (explicitly, I think) re-claimed its historic role of protecting (viz a viz the Czars and the Ottomans).

        Still a trap though.Report

      • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Sorry by “going after” I meant “going in to protect him”.

        Either way, it would be a strategic blunder of epic proportions if they were to go in and put BOG with the intention of propping up the Assad regime. Hell, even just continuing to provide financial support is like throwing money down a blackhole.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe in reply to LeeEsq says:

        “it would be a strategic blunder of epic proportions”

        And the most famous one a that.

        Though to be fair, does ‘never get involved in a land war in Asia’ actually apply to Russia? They were historically very good at that until 1979 or so.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Kolohe, Tsarist Russia was the official protector of Christians in the Balkan part of the Ottoman Empire because they were Slavs to. It was France that possessed the role of protecting Christians in the Middle Eastern part of the Ottoman Empire, especially in Lebanon and Syria. Thats how France got the mandates in the first place.Report

      • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Though to be fair, does ‘never get involved in a land war in Asia’ actually apply to Russia? They were historically very good at that until 1979 or so.

        I don’t know if they were actually good at it, so much as that others were worse at it. That is it’s very hard to label anything involving invasions of Russia as anything other than phyrric victories for the surviving Russians.

        And let’s not forget that they lost the Crimean War for all intents and purposes.Report

  8. Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

    Ethan’s statement is really important. The public does not like presidents coming onto prime time on a regular basis, and when they see one do it too often, with too little to say, it diminishes both their interest and their support. If a prez is going to ask the public for its attention, he needs to have something both new and important to say.

    Jimmy Carter failed this when he gave too many televised MEOW speeches–he was repeating the same points multiple times. W failed this in the summer of….05? (I forget), when he announced a major prime time speech about Iraq, but told us nothing new and essentially repeated the same speech he’d given a few months beforel

    So at least Obama’s got precedent for bungling this.

    I speculate that there are two basic causes to this error. One is a president’s belief in his persuasive powers.After all, he persuaded tens of millions of people to cast votes for him, and he has persuaded reluctant congressmen on legislation, and when he talks his advisers listen. And since the issue is so clear to him (often, perhaps not in the preset case) it seems all he should need to do is lay out the facts, and everyone will surely understand them. The second is the failure to find any other tactic. I suspect that the nationally televised speech is a kind of fallback tactic–“Boys, we’re all out of ideas. You know what that means.” “Yeah, time for a speech!”

    There’s a modicum of actual political science and presidency knowledge in there (for those who don’t know me, presidency is one of the courses I teach, but I’m not a true scholar of the field, not the sort of expert national news anchors would contact), but much of it is truly speculative.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

      The public does not like presidents coming onto prime time on a regular basis, and when they see one do it too often, with too little to say, it diminishes both their interest and their support.

      Evidence for this?Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

        …The harm I’d take just on assertion is that if you mis-time a speech, then you lose the additional value that a better-timed speech would have had (as I suggest above), and possibly reduce your audience if you need to give another address when the situation more calls for it. Actively harming support, and in fact even lessening interest in future addresses, I’d need to see the evidence. Seems like it might, but it might not, or might only after some point of saturation.

        (Has Obama been particularly over-present in settings like this? I don’t remember the last major break-in address like this if it was since May 1, 2011, though I’m guessing I’m forgetting some. And as I say, on this matter, I think he has been under-explaining the situation. If he had opted to wait for more of an indication of a resolution, it’s not clear how long he’d have been waiting. I still think that would have been advisable – again, reiterating, I do think he screwed up the timing of this address, but fairly narrowly, as the tension of a need to explain the situation became more pressing as the days went by with an unknown schedule of developments. And it’s not a function of his having over-utilized this kind of major setting. This situation definitely called for an address of this type; it was simply mistimed)Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to Michael Drew says:

        Evidence for this?

        A fair question. Directly, I this from my former mentor, who was a presidency specialist, but who is now dead, so we can’t ask him. Feel free, on that basis, to take my claims with several grains of salt.

        But indirectly, I can give you this from Elvin Lim’s “The Presidency and the Media: Two Faces of Democracy,” in The Presidency and the Political System.”*

        The rhetorical presidency needs positive coverage and feedback from journalists in order for his message to reach deep into the public consciousness….

        Roosevelt and Johnson understood that the rhetorical presidency is about more than giving speeches, and that the media is engaged in a collective endeavor with the presidency to woo the public…

        The public interacts differently with the media and the presidency. Both are out to woo audiences, but they understand the audiences differently. For the media..[a]udiences are customers. For presidents, audiences are citizens, potential voters, and potential letter writers who might contact their members of Congress to do the president’s bidding.

        OK, that’s a bit oblique, and it adds in the opinion-shaping power of the media (which a president can’t successfully ignore), but I hope the relationship to my point comes through clearly enough: a president who repeats himself and says nothing new or noteworthy is not going to be able to woo potential voters/letter writers, because he’s not stimulating anyone, and the media is going to shape the story–just as we see here on this page–as a rather pointless exercise. And if we didn’t see anything interesting from the president this time, and the media reinforces the message that we didn’t see anything interesting from him this time, then we don’t expect much from him next time, because we’ve learned (or, “learned”) not to expect much.

        Empirically, I’d also point back to Carter and Bush. Those speeches did nothing to reverse the downward trend in their approval ratings. (They may even have accelerated them–that should be possible to evaluate, based on approval ratings, if anyone has the time or inclination.

        I hope that provides at least some portion of the evidence that you request, and I understand it may be less than wholly convincing.

        * It’s a really great, mostly readable, overview of the presidency’s various facets and its fit in the political structure–if you’re interested in learning more about the presidency, pick up a used copy cheap. Or if anyone’s inclined, I have two earlier editions I no longer need, and would be happy to ship them free of charge to the first two people who email me, with their addresses, asking about them. jhanley@adrian.eduReport

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to Michael Drew says:

        Has Obama been particularly over-present in settings like this?

        No, that’s an advantage he has that could mitigate the fallout from this speech. On the other hand, the ever-present tendency to complain about everything–“Did you hear that Obama actually took time to eat dinner and take a dump today? God, that guy is lazy ass~–means he probably doesn’t have much room for error. (Or maybe, because it’s so predictable, and perhaps tuned out by the median voter, that it actually gives him more room to error?)Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

        I’ll take a free book! (But if my address is not among the first two in your inbox, woe unto me (though not really)).Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

        On the views of the men you reference, I wonder if those observations came before the time when it became such a commonplace communication maxim that repetition is how you get a message to sink in (something Obama has not taken particularly well to heart). (That maxim may be mistaken, but it’s pretty widely adhered to if it is. Also, OTOH, FDR seemed to understand it pretty well.)

        I also wonder if we need to make a distinction between regular business and crisis moments. Total speculation, but I’d guess that there might be a bit more allowance for multiple communiques during fast-moving international security situations. Now, handling a crisis in such a way where one decisive message is not enough to explain your handling of it is certainly potentially problematic. But that seems like a slightly different slice of problematic than the one you’re focusing on. Though not that different – broadly I think we agree that the basic problem was the timing, and further, that the even more basic problem is that the situation just can’t be made to look like it’s being handled well while it’s ongoing, so unless he really waited until it was just about resolved, he might not have a complete enough story to tell about it.

        But that all assumes that timing the speech for best public impact was possible. It looks to me more like a forced move than anything else, and, as I say below, I actually don’t think he’s necessarily operating with the luxury of making these decisions with the effect on U.S. public opinion as the foremost factor in any case.Report

    • Avatar Kolohe in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

      The White House had announced the speech (and Monday’s media blitz) on Friday or Saturday. Almost certainly, the President intended at that time to give the first part of the speech he actually gave – a sitrep and the case for military action – then call on Congress to act immediately to concur with that course of action. The Russian’s got inside the White House’s decision cycle, thanks to the Secretary of State’s off the cuff sarcasm.

      The White House apparently decided that *not* taking advantage of the prime time attention granted to it would be worse than a last minute edit. Hence, the Frakenspeech that was produced. To speak or not to speak was a close decision, I can see the merits of either course of action. The advantage is that it clearly signals a shift to a lower gear on this thing, which is the the Administration’s and the United States’ best interests.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Kolohe says:

        Agreed. Narrow call. But the possibility of partially conclusive developments in short order I think ought to have been narrowly enough to wait and see a couple of days. But I may be underestimating the strength of the signal of unsteadiness that postponing the speech would have sent (though I think postponing the votes already did that to a great extent, so the additional effect of postponing the speech is… difficult to estimate).Report

      • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Kolohe says:

        The one (small) thing I definitely disagree with was doing this from the East Wing. The optics of strolling down “I killed Bin Laden Lane” (as the Daily Show has put it) was all wrong for what was inevitably going to be, not a decisive speech, but a temporizing one. I don’t get why he didn’t give this speech from the Oval Office – it would be a better link to the past, and at the same time decouple this action from other wars during his administration, which explicitly stated was his aim.

        But come to think of it, I don’t recall him ever giving speech from behind the Resolute desk.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Kolohe says:

        He did it from the Oval early on a couple times and got utterly panned for it – something to do with how he moved his hands. But I agree with you: inappropriate given the bin Laden association at this point. He was delivering a very different kind of message here. They may have just decided now that this is where these things are going to happen, end of story.Report

      • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to Kolohe says:

        I feel like he took the wrong tone on this.

        He should’ve STARTED with the announcement that the Administration was going to push forward on the UNSC resolution, basically present it as a fait accompli, and then perhaps make the case of why he was talking about military strikes. The order swap itself would’ve changed the tenor of the speech a bit, and would’ve made the East Wing appearance more appropriate, I think.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Kolohe says:

        yeah, that would have worked a lot better.
        Obama is a skilled speechwriter and deliverer.
        He is not so good extemp. Everyone crossed their fingers at his debates.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Kolohe says:

        That would have worked if there’d really been a real deal to report. Then you lead with that. But the speech was as much about signalling to Russia that the threat of action is still in play if they don’t produce something very real and make ti start to happen in a real way, which in turn depends on shoring up the political credibility of that threat. So that, first of all, means showing an inclination not to be satisfied with this just having gotten off on the diplomatic track (which, without very real results, constitutes essentially a total political victory for Putin-Assad, depite the fact that there’s still some policy victory Obama could claim from it), and second, it means trying to keep some degree of interest and support for empowering the president to credibly threaten force in Congress. That’s why the speech was so warlike, and why it had to lead with that info. I initially thought that all those factors pointed to the speech being mistimed, but I’m starting to rethink that. I thought it would have been better to wait for the diplomatic track to get going beofre giving the speech, but now I’m thinking it may have been necessary to speak early in order to maximize influence over it (which George would rightly point out was a limited thing in any case, but nevertheless), and I thought it would make more sense to wait until another set of votes were scheduled to try to influence Congress, but now I’m thinking that without signaling to Congress now the extreme conditionality of their commitment to this new diplo process and their intention not to abandon threats of force, any possibility of more Congresional attention may have been gone by 9am EDT today. Also, however, the speech might not have had much effect in either of those aims, but for it to have whatever effect in those regards that it possibly could, it may have been even more necessary to give right away after Kerry’s… whatever than it even was before it. May. Still thinking through it.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Kolohe says:

        @nob-akimoto that’s a very good observation, I agree.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Kolohe says:

        even if you wanna be warlike, lead with NEWS. Then interpret it.
        “Russia, my friends, has drawn up a plan. The plan, if carried out in toto, would eliminate the need for military force. However, they have significant incentive to not complete this plan. My friends, I ask our congress and the American people for the ability to provide an alternative, stronger incentive, with military force if necessary.”Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to Kolohe says:


        I think you’re in the right of it. But I’d disagree with his advisers (or him, perhaps) that it was the best choice. I think a “There are significant new developments that we are happy to explore, so the speech will be postponed for the moment” would have sufficed.

        But then no president has ever asked me to be one of their political advisers, so there’s that.Report

      • Avatar George Turner in reply to Kolohe says:

        I’ve seen the speech summarized as “Derp”, and large hunks of it seem to be rewrites of some of Bush’s Iraq War speeches, or their rhetorical techniques (answering criticisms, citing justifications in international law, etc, in quite detailed parallels).

        Some of the articles in major newspapers today are:

        Pravda: “Obama: The Worst President in United States History” (written by a wackjob)

        UK Guardian:
        “Obama’s Syria Address: Do We Look that Dumb?”

        “Aleppo rebels angry as diplomacy lets Assad off the hook.”

        “Putin’s deft timing on a Syria arms surrender plan snookered Obama.”

        USA Today:
        “Obama is a laughingstock” (which was their fifth most popular story)

        UK Telegraph:
        “Syria, chemical weapons, and the worst day in Western diplomatic history.”

        “The humiliation of Obama as Putin swaggers on his Moscow dunghill.”

        So the New York Time ran a a letter from Putin, a privilege they even refused to McCain in 2008.

        The world read Putin’s piece, and tweeted:

        “Putin now just basically doing donuts in Obama’s front yard”

        “This is Putin doing a homerun trot pantless in Yankee Stadium.”

        “We must spite this fascist Russian douche with an ill-advised attack on his client!”

        “The Russian president just trolled an embarrassed United States in its paper of record on September 11th. Everything I love is dead.”

        NBC Nightly News was almost apologetic about the speech, and then followed it with interviews of Al Qaeda members moving into Syria, citing the Koran on the blessings of having two enemies fight each other (the US and Assad).

        So, the questions is where do they go (the Administration and Congress) from here. Around noon (before I jumped into the NSA thread and of course had my PC and router crash), I listened to the White House talk about their hopefulness over the Russian proposal, and I felt like I was watching a horror movie where you want to holler “Don’t look in the basement! Don’t go into the basement!”, knowing full well the idiot character is going to march down to the basement – because that’s just who their character is, and that’s the role they have. To wander blindly into a trap that they refuse to see coming because they’re too self-absorbed, trying to impress the cool co-ed (who dies about 15 minutes later in the attic).

        What I hope is that the West can get some intelligent, competent, seasoned professional people on the ground in Syria, ones who spit tobacco juice and don’t have an international studies degree from Harvard or Yale, and that they’ll ignore everything going on above their pay grade.Report

  9. Avatar Kazzy says:

    A question to all but prompted by something Murali said…

    How does the outcome of a process impact the rightness of the process? This gets at a post that Vikram wrote recently. If Democracy is the “right thing to do”, then isn’t it the “right thing to do” regardless of whether it results in a moderate in power or a member of the Muslim Brotherhood (provided they are as evil as everyone seems to say they are… I don’t know anything about them)? Similarly, if using chemical weapons is wrong and stopping people from doing so is right, does that change because the result might be someone we think is bad (or whom actually is bad) coming to power?

    These are genuine questions. I suppose they get into the whole ends and means and justification debate, but I’m curious to hear thoughts…Report

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