Three Ways of Looking at Obama's Syria Speech

"You want to know about innocent children dying in horrible circumstances? Read John Hersey's Hiroshima."

I am on the road once more and not in a position to do a detailed speech response. So here are three reactions from readers. [Update see bonus #4 point below.]

1) It's the long game, once again. A reader writes:

think that it is worthy of note the difference between Obama's handing of the Syrian WMD, confirmed by the very owner, and George W. Bush's handling of the Iraq WMD, denied by the accused who was proved right in his denial.

Obama now appears to have avoided even the limited strike that the GOP refused to support. In the process he has reestablished the role of Congress' role in declaring war, he has forced the Russian government (not to mention China and the U.N.) to support his initiative and has significantly degraded Assad's capabilities in the midst of a civil war, all without firing a shot.

GWB, meanwhile, fabricated claims of Iraq WMD, which were contradicted by the U.N. inspectors, not to mention Saddam Hussein, both of which proved truthful, and then launched the longest and most expensive war in American history.

Could the comparison be more stark?

Will the MSM [mainstream media] completely miss the point? No doubt to both questions.

2) No punch line. On the other hand, from Congressional veteran Charles Stevenson: 

The President's speech lacked a punch line. There was no call for action, no roadmap for how this diplomatic effort might lead to that better world when no one dares to use chemical weapons. "Wait and see," and "don't vote now" leave Congress and the rest of us puzzled rather than reassured.

I also took little comfort from the not-for-attribution briefing where some official ticked off the number of minutes spent in phone calls with the Russians as if to prove "we're not incompetent."

For me, the punch line for the moment is: Perhaps more options exist, and whether or not this Russian offer/ploy turns out to be worthwhile, there is benefit simply in moving the whole discussion past the up-or-down, bomb-or-ignore, decide-on-an-artificial-deadline situation as of two days ago.

3) Stop saying "isolationist." The legal/ political writer Garrett Epps sends in this message:

It's an example of how sloppy journalistic language is that any opposition to the intervention in Syria is portrayed as "isolationist." That word has a historic meaning, and it doesn't mean, "refusal to agree to any military intervention ever proposed, regardless of how hare-brained."

I haven't decided how I feel about Syria but this use of words makes my blood boil. 

I entirely agree, and will pile on when possible. Which leads me to the similar bonus point #4 : it really is time to stop basing appeals for international action on the "see the videos of children dying horribly" theme. This is a note that the president touched on briefly last night, and that has been the dominant element in presentations by Susan Rice and Samantha Power (as Garance Franke-Ruta noted).

Stop it. You want to know about innocent children dying in horrible circumstances? Read John Hersey's Hiroshima. That book made clear, as the Syrian videos have, that death in warfare is terrible, and particularly heart-wrenching and unbearable to know about when it involves children. I have children whom I love as much as anyone anywhere ever has, and now a little grandson; if such a thing were possible, I would love him even more. Like most people in most places I don't need reminders of the special cruelty and heartbreak of any suffering inflicted on the young.

But as the Hiroshima comparison illustrates, to mention the suffering of children does not settle political, strategic, or even moral questions. You can argue that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were historical necessities and even "merciful" in some way, in averting later and much larger numbers of Japanese and American deaths during an invasion. You can argue the reverse. Either way, little children had their flesh roasted as they walked to school or happily played. Their suffering does not answer the "was Truman right?" or the "is deterrence moral?" questions. The suffering of people in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania 12 years ago today did not answer the "should we invade Iraq?" question. The Syria videos tell us that something horrible happened, not what we should do about it. 

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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