The President Goes Prime Time on Syria: Initial Reactions
Ethan Gach: What was the point? Why did the President see fit to address the nation for some twenty odd minutes in order to update us on the developing international crisis in Syria? He had nothing new to say–not even new phraseology.
Before the speech the country was at a crossroads, with a 50% chance of going to war with Syria (what else can we call repeated missile strikes in another country?) and a 50% chance of simply “muddling through.”
Thousands of words later, we’re still at the same point. The President didn’t make a case for action that his cabinet and advisers hadn’t already put forth, nor did he propose anything new. There’s nothing inherently wrong in any of that, except it begs the question: why give the speech at all?
Is anyone out there who’s even bothering to tune in actually going to be persuaded to support armed conflict in another Middle Eastern country if the President invokes the specter of dead children enough times? Yes, I know, it sounds callous– but I don’t know how else to be when the President flaunts his moral and logical inconsistency with such condescending self-righteousness.
Murali: A few things made it seem like a propaganda piece. Firstly, saying that Assad did use chemical weapons often enough and confidently enough does not make the evidence favouring that conclusion any stronger. There is a when-did-you-stop-beating-
Malaysia is a supposedly moderate Islamic democracy with a common law tradition and conversion from Islam is illegal and it has a weird apartheid thing going on with regards to the non-Muslim minorities. I don’t think that the American people want or ought to provide material support to the rebels if Malaysia is their best realistic outcome. Even if I’m wrong on the principle, Obama seems too blithe in his dismissal of the possibility that extremists would come to power. And correct me if I’m wrong, but towards the end, did Obama just try to claim credit for what was essentially a verbal gaff by Kerry?
Nob Akimoto: While the president’s emphasis on the Russian disarmament plan was welcome, it also made the speech feel disjointed and somewhat incoherent. The forceful opening and body that emphasized the need for direct action, as well as answering individual concerns about military action meandering into a plan of action for a diplomatic solution sounded forced. All in all I don’t think the speech did anything useful except to show the Administration’s evolving position toward a diplomatic solution.
Future policy students will likely use this situation as a case study for muddling through. That in itself isn’t a bad thing, if the end-result is curtailing some war powers and setting a precedent for coming to the negotiating table.
Tim Kowal: I sympathize with the President. He’s in a tough spot that, for once, is not defined by partisan lines. He’s taken a moral and principled stand — in word thus far, deed still pending — on an issue that deserves moral and principled consideration. Mass murdering innocents with chemical weapons is abominable, and no one can point to a less slippery position along this particular slope on which to make our stand. Our foreign policy has not been consistent (a feature, not a bug, or if a bug, a useful one), but past (in)actions can never excuse failing to do what is right today.
Like I said, I sympathize with the President.
But on the other hand, sympathy seems somehow the wrong emotion to have toward my country’s commander-in-chief embroiled in a conflict with a malevolent foreign dictator. I am unsure about what action to take in Syria, but whatever that action is, it seems it ought to be decisive. If the purpose for acting is to send a message about Americans’ resolve about “red line” moral issues like mass murdering children with chemical weapons, then hemming and hawing about it sends precisely the opposite message. Do or do not. There is no try.
I don’t mean to suggest I’m against going to Congress, necessarily. But it seems to me a serious President would have thought that through long before he got around to asking for that authorization. Now that the ball is in Congress’s court, it’s got to return it with something more than an unhelpful “no.” If the Congress leaves the President as badly embarrassed as it appears he will be, no self-respecting President will ever consider asking Congress’s help again.
Further strategic details are further beyond the scope than I’ve already strayed, so onto the speech itself. It was tinny, I thought. He described the images of children foaming at the mouth and writhing in agony until expiring in a rather clinical tone. He strained his voice often, as if doubtful the words could carry the message by themselves. He seems to believe in the message, that something must be done. But he gives too much credit to the empty rebuttal that Americans are tired of conflict, as if being tired could ever excuse failing to do what is right. If this is what it means for a President to seek approval before taking such actions — asking whether his 310 million generals are in the mood — maybe I’m against it after all.