Regarding the President’s prime time speech last night, I agree that the speech probably should not have been given, but it had to be given to maintain the credible threat of force that is driving the diplomatic negotiations. So the speech itself, in my mind, was less important than reactions to the overall situation. And I think Andrew Sullivan and Booman best describe my thoughts:
That was one of the clearest, simplest and most moving presidential speeches to the nation I can imagine. It explained and it argued, point after point. Everything the president said extemporaneously at the post-G20 presser was touched on, made terser, more elegant and more persuasive. [...]
I’m tired of the eye-rolling and the easy nit-picking of the president’s leadership on this over the last few weeks. The truth is: his threat of war galvanized the world and America, raised the profile of the issue of chemical weapons more powerfully than ever before, ensured that this atrocity would not be easily ignored and fostered a diplomatic initiative to resolve the issue without use of arms. All the objectives he has said he wanted from the get-go are now within reach, and the threat of military force – even if implicit – remains.
Yes, it’s been messy. A more cautious president would have ducked it. Knowing full well it could scramble his presidency, Obama nonetheless believed that stopping chemical weapons use is worth it – for the long run, and for Americans as well as Syrians. Putin understands this as well. Those chemical weapons, if uncontrolled, could easily slip into the hands of rebels whose second target, after Assad and the Alawites and the Christians, would be Russia.
This emphatically does not solve the Syria implosion. But Obama has never promised to. What it does offer is a nonviolent way toward taking the chemical weapons issue off the table. Just because we cannot solve everything does not mean we cannot solve something. And the core truth is that without Obama’s willingness to go out on a precarious limb, we would not have that opportunity.
The money quote for me, apart from the deeply moving passage about poison gas use at the end, was his description of a letter from a service-member who told him, “We should not be the world’s policeman.” President Obama said, quite simply: “I agree.” And those on the far right who are accusing him of ceding the Middle East to Russia are half-right and yet completely wrong. What this remarkable breakthrough has brought about is a possible end to the dynamic in which America is both blamed for all the evils in the world and then also blamed for not stopping all of them. We desperately need to rebuild international cooperation to relieve us of that impossible burden in a cycle that can only hurt us and the West again and again.
Booman on the current situation:
Initially, [President Obama] responded [to the August 21 chemical attack in Syria] by acceding to his own foreign policy establishment and calling for limited punitive strikes that would have actually been designed to tilt the battlefield in the rebels’ favor (although not to the point that they would force an abdication). The policy was nonsensical, which was plain to almost everyone, but something had to be done. For Vladimir Putin, a refiguring of the battlefield in Syria was not in his interests. So, suddenly, it became preferable to offer the deal Obama had been asking for for a year.
The downside is that the battlefield will remain tilted in Assad’s favor. That is what Russia gets out of it. What Obama gets out of it is the avoidance of deeper commitment to a complete quagmire, a total solution to the chemical weapons problem, an effective enforcement of the norm against the use of chemical weapons, the gratitude of a war-weary public, and one more example of the charmed life he leads, this time with almost a magician’s twist.
The hawks will be unhappy. Anyone who wants a quick end to Syria’s civil war will be unhappy, but they were relying on mission creep to get the job done. And that is exactly what Obama has been fighting against from Day One. You may find reasons to disagree with the man’s policies. You may think he bears some responsibility for the tragedy in Syria because he has refused to make it America’s responsibility to solve, but he’s fought off everyone, including in his own cabinet, and come out the other side with a way out that is hard to criticize. Raise your hand if you saw it coming.
Fred Kaplan on the Obama’s speech:
The upshot is this: If Russia backs away from a real deal, after exciting so many players to its possibilities, Obama could emerge with his air strikes gaining greater support—at home and abroad. To this end, Obama and his aides have crafted a narrative that makes everything they’ve done in recent days—the slips and slides, as well as the shrewd moves—seem smart and bold: namely, that Putin proposed this plan (and Assad subsequently announced that Syria would join the other 189 nations that have signed an international treaty prohibiting the use of chemical weapons) only because the United States had threatened to use force.
This narrative may even be true.
Obama attributed the Russian initiative partly to “the credible threat of U.S. military action.” That’s certainly the case. The Russians and Syrians would not have budged without the threat of American force. And even if the protracted negotiations over the next months don’t result in a clear and firm proposal. Assad will have acknowledged his use of chemical weapons and be far less likely to use them again, as will other dictators who find themselves facing popular rebellions. And if by any chance he does use them, Obama should have less trouble in building an international coalition to punish him. That’s all to the good, and is the result—even with all the bungling diplomacy—of Obama’s initial threat of force.
The sudden onset of diplomacy has produced a widespread skepticism that I find baffling. Remember, the purpose of air strikes is not to topple Assad. It can’t prevent the attack that has already happened. All it can do is prevent him – and, to a lesser extent, future dictators — from using chemical weapons. The skeptical reactions I’ve seen, from the likes of Jeff Goldberg, Julia Ioffe, and Max Fisher all seem to lose sight of this, judging diplomacy against a standard of success higher than the air strikes could possibly have achieved.
Ross Douthat thinks the speech should not have taken place:
A prime time presidential address should either announce a policy course or make a specific appeal to Congress; it should not be wasted on a situation where the course is so unclear and the appeal so vague and undirected. Yes, it’s been on the schedule since last week, but there is no rule saying that a president must speak when he’s announced that he will speak if significant events intervene. And after the Russian gambit and the Congressional vote’s postponement, it would have been the better part of valor to simply postpone this speech as well.
It’s impossible to take seriously Obama’s claim that he doesn’t think “world’s policeman” is the proper U.S. role when he is delivering a speech defending the necessity of enforcing an international norm with military action. He recycled several of his officials’ worst fear-mongering arguments about proliferation, Iran, and terrorism, but these have not improved through repeated assertion. All in all, this was a speech that Obama didn’t need to give, and he said nothing that would persuade anyone not already supportive of his policy.