A Very Wise Decision by Obama

By James Fallows

[Please see hour-later update below. The first part was from real time during Obama's speech.]

The two crucial parts of his announcement just now:

1) No rush about doing whatever needs to be done with Syria. This is a punitive rather than a preventive action, which should be undertaken with deliberation and -- if and when it happens -- by surprise.

2) Recognizing the higher wisdom -- for himself, for the country, for the world -- of taking this to the Congress.

This is the kind of deliberation, and deliberateness, plus finding ways to get out of a (self-created) corner, that has characterized the best of his decisions. It is a very welcome change, and surprise, from what leaks had implied over the past two weeks.

When there is a transcript, will do a brief annotation. To appreciate how far we have come, consider the lead front-page headline from the WaPo just yesterday.


Update: I got a transcript, I spent half an hour going through it all with notations, then our blog system had some kind of glitch and everything disappeared. Dammit. I can't stand to re-do that, so I'll mention a couple of key sentences:

"The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs [known not to be enthusiastic about another engagement] has informed me that we are prepared to strike whenever we choose. [Yes! An avoidance of the apparent rush; a recognition that in a punitive raid the advantage of time, and surprise, is on his side.] Moreover, the Chairman has indicated to me that our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive; it will be effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now. [The structure of this sentence implying an ellipsis and leaving room for, "or whenever after that."]

But having made my decision as Commander-in-Chief based on what I am convinced is our national security interests, I'm also mindful that I'm the President of the world's oldest constitutional democracy. [This and the preceding paragraph, back to back, were the signal that Obama had made the two crucial choices. 1) There's no rush, and 2) involve the Congress.] I've long believed that our power is rooted not just in our military might, but in our example as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. And that's why I've made a second decision: I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people's representatives in Congress. [I stopped listening super-carefully at this point, because the big news was in.]

Over the last several days, we've heard from members of Congress who want their voices to be heard. [And of course Obama understands that even many of those people, plus most of the rest, were actually hoping he would ignore them. That way they could complain about his arrogant imperial overreach now, and meanwhile avoid casting what can only be a difficult vote.] I absolutely agree. [Don't throw me in that briar patch!] So this morning, I spoke with all four congressional leaders, and they've agreed to schedule a debate and then a vote as soon as Congress comes back into session.... And all of us should be accountable [see above. Every single Representative and Senator will either have to vote to support the Administration, or have to explain a No vote the next time Assad gasses someone] as we move forward, and that can only be accomplished with a vote.

I'm confident in the case our government has made without waiting for U.N. inspectors. I'm comfortable going forward without the approval of a United Nations Security Council that, so far, has been completely paralyzed and unwilling to hold Assad accountable. [A brush-away that is simultaneously off-hand, polite, reasonable-sounding, and utterly dismissive of the Security Council's uselessness in cases like this. And yet, as a reader pointed out, there is that significant "so far," allowing for the conceivability of a Russian or Chinese change.] ...

Yet, while I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective. [This sentence deserves lapidary examination. The "I believe" / "I know" pairing, the assertion of presidential prerogative as a segue to requesting Congressional approval, the appeal to the high road. Nicely done.

We should have this debate, because the issues are too big for business as usual. And this morning, John Boehner, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell agreed [When have we seen those ten words in that order? Or will see them again?] that this is the right thing to do for our democracy.

If we ever resurrect the lost annotation, I'll rework it. The leitmotif was invoking several previous times in which Obama had shifted from lackluster and puzzling to being in command of his powers. Eg politically: the disaster of his first debate against Romney, versus his comeback in debates two and three. Strategically: falling for the Afghanistan surge argument in 2009, and then correcting course and reversing the policy by 2011. And now this: a ten-day period in which he seemed out of control, leading to what is strategically and politically a much wiser course.


Also, from my friend Charles Stevenson:

I don't think it's just a coincidence that Obama's request for congressional authorization for force came when, for the first time ever, all four statutory members of the National Security Council were former Senators.

He is talking about Obama, Biden, Kerry, and Hagel.  

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/08/a-very-wise-decision-by-obama/279245/