Obama Is Still Stuck in a Catch-22 On Syria

The president's White House speech played it safe, doing little to answer the concerns of doves who oppose the war and hawks who find his plan too small to matter.
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Reuters

With public opinion on Syria ebbing away from him, President Obama seemingly had two choices for his address to the nation Tuesday night: He could deliver a newly impassioned and emotional version of his case that limited military strikes were necessary and effective. Or he could seize on the premise that circumstances had changed and announce a new policy for how to handle them.

Instead of either, however, Obama chose to play it very safe.

The president's speech in the White House's East Room was short -- clocking in at a neat 15 minutes -- and offered hardly anything new. As he has for days, Obama argued that while the the civil war in Syria is a tragedy, there was no justification for American intervention until the use of chemical weapons necessitated it. And he praised, if tentatively, the day's major development -- a nascent but fragile agreement involving Russia that would see Syria surrender its chemical weapons and sign an international treaty prohibiting their use.

He also emphasized that any attack would be very limited in scope. "I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria," he said. "I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan. I will not pursue a prolonged air campaign like Libya or Kosovo. This would be a targeted strike to achieve a clear objective: deterring the use of chemical weapons and degrading Assad's capabilities."

Much of the speech was structured as a response to common objections to attacking Syria. And it was here that the lack of novel or more developed replies was most striking. A White House address like this is necessarily targeted to all a wide audience, including those who have paid little attention to the Beltway battle over an attack and might be unfamiliar with the debate. Still, with the minimal support he has for a strike collapsing, he seems to be in no position to hit the same notes.

Nor did he make much of an emotional plea, though he cited the same horrible deaths of children in sarin attacks that Samantha Power and Susan Rice have made in recent days. The president got most fired up, instead, as he closed his remarks. Asking the right to follow through on its commitment to American military force and the left to follow through on it humanitarian ideals, he asked:

What kind of world will we live in if the United States of America sees a dictator brazenly violate international law with poison gas and we choose to look the other way? ... Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That's what makes America different. That's what makes us exceptional.

Yet despite the FAQ-like format, Obama perhaps left more questions unanswered than he resolved.

Disappointingly for hawks and liberal interventionists, the president stubbornly insisted he would not seek to topple Bashar al-Assad -- though in a concession to critics who groaned at John Kerry's promise than an attack would be "unbelievably small," Obama said even a limited campaign would get results: "The United States military doesn't do pinpricks. Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver." But the president didn't offer much reassurance to anyone skeptical about the deterrent power of such a strike, nor did he answer the critique that Assad has killed civilians --including, yes, children -- quite effectively with conventional weapons.

The administration's argument that sarin attacks in a Syrian neighborhood threaten national security has failed to rouse many in Congress. Obama's reply tonight was elaborate, imagining that failure to act would encourage further attacks by other dictators, endanger regional allies, and in the future perhaps result in American soldiers being gassed. He didn't explain why, for example, Saddam Hussein's use of gas in the 1980s and 1990s didn't create a rash of chemical-weapons attacks, and the vague domino effect and indeterminate timeline seem unlikely to convince the many Americans who have turned against intervention after a decade of wars. Obama's circumspection sometimes undermined his own case, as when he pointed out, "The Assad regime does not have the ability to seriously threaten our military."

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?

With the nation watching, Obama had a chance to resolve these contradictions, and he didn't do it -- he didn't even try. Luckily for him, speeches seldom matter. If the diplomatic maneuverings to get Assad to turn over his chemical weapons succeed, this speech will look like a moment of wise caution when the president treaded water rather than making waves. If they fail, however, he will have squandered a chance -- will anyone really heed his second White House speech on Syria, should he have to make one?

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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