President Obama’s address about his Syria policy felt like the policy itself at times. He went ahead with it just because he promised he would. The purpose of the East Room address was to rally the country and members of Congress to support a military strike against Syria, but the Congressional vote to do so has been postponed while a possible diplomatic solution is pursued. So the president’s speech was like delivering a locker room speech after the rain delay had been called.
But in keeping with the apparent rule that every aspect of this policy must have a contradiction, the president argued that the threat of military force must remain credible to keep diplomacy alive. Assad will give up chemical weapons only if he believes he’ll receive Tomahawk missiles if he doesn’t. But the only way that can be done at present—since Obama has made it clear he won’t act without Congress—is with a Congressional vote supporting military strikes. But that vote has been postponed—at the president’s request—while diplomacy is pursued. Because the president was almost certain to lose such a vote, not having Congress weigh in was the best way to keep the pressure on.
The gas went out of the speech the same way the gas has gone out of the president’s threat of force. Since Obama took the issue to Congress, he has been losing support. And yet in another contradiction, he was giving this speech from the greatest position of strength he’s had in days. His threat to strike Syria—which was becoming less credible as each news cycle reported yet more opposition in Congress—was bearing limited fruit in the form of a tentative deal for Syria to give up its chemical weapons. If the point of the strikes was to degrade Assad’s chemical weapons, what better way to do that than have him give them up entirely?
Obama sounded the themes that have become thoroughly familiar since he turned to Congress more than a week ago as a partner in this endeavor. He reiterated that the mission would be limited, that the United States cannot be the world’s policeman, and that this mission would not be like Iraq. He referred repeatedly to the letters from regular people who had expressed their concerns to him. He identified with those who opposed action by using their words. “We cannot resolve someone else’s civil war through force.” But the president needed to do more than assert familiar lines and identify with the audience. He needed to give members of Congress arguments to present their highly skeptical constituents. He didn’t. Presidential speeches don’t usually move votes, and this one affirmed that truth.
That’s not to say that the president didn’t sound moving notes. He spoke of the victims and referred repeatedly to the children who had been gassed, at one point referring to them “writhing in pain and going still on a cold hospital floor.” His request of the country was put most succinctly with those victims in mind too: “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.” Obama, who has been relentlessly criticized for not believing in American exceptionalism, then went on to invoke it as an argument for action. “That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth.”
The emotionally charged rhetoric was a version of the case the administration has been making for days in private to lawmakers. It hasn’t worked. Even those members who have visited the situation room and seen the gruesome pictures and video and listened to the president and vice president in one-on-one sessions have emerged unconvinced that military action is necessary in response to the atrocity. The biggest hurdle is the unknown consequences of action and the president can’t really put those fears to bed.
The best new argument the president has for his Syria policy is that the threat appears to be working. The outlines of the Syrian offer to give up chemical weapons will become clear soon enough and we’ll all learn whether this pause was a bluff or a genuine breakthrough. If it’s the latter, then what looked like a confusing speech in the middle of a fishtailing policy will mark the moment when Obama’s hard line started to pay off. If it’s just a bluff, then the president will again need that Congressional vote, and his remarks from tonight will be long in the distance.