Obama's bizarre TV address: the President dithers over Syria

Obama could not be clearer: something needs to be done about Assad. But he is ducking every opportunity to act.

If you didn't see Obama's address to the nation on Syria yesterday evening, you missed a pretty inglorious moment in the 44th President's career.

He opened strongly; invoking, in no uncertain terms, the ungodly horror of Assad's chemical attack:

The situation profoundly changed ... on August 21st, when Assad’s government gassed to death over a thousand people, including hundreds of children. The images from this massacre are sickening: Men, women, children lying in rows, killed by poison gas. Others foaming at the mouth, gasping for breath. A father clutching his dead children, imploring them to get up and walk. On that terrible night, the world saw in gruesome detail the terrible nature of chemical weapons, and why the overwhelming majority of humanity has declared them off-limits - a crime against humanity, and a violation of the laws of war.

Strong words. And they got stronger.

This was not always the case. In World War I, American GIs were among the many thousands killed by deadly gas in the trenches of Europe. In World War II, the Nazis used gas to inflict the horror of the Holocaust.

So far, so very bullish. Like a lawyer summing up his arguments in front of a jury, with surgical precision Obama proceeded to outline the reasons for taking immediate action. Chemical weapons are a violation of international law, he said. More than that; they are a violation of our codes of conduct; and, moreover, an indirect but very real threat to American security.

“If we fail to act,” he said, “the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons. As the ban against these weapons erodes, other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas, and using them. Over time, our troops would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield. And it could be easier for terrorist organizations to obtain these weapons, and to use them to attack civilians.”

He continued that allowing Assad to get away with this massacre could threaten America's regional allies, including Israel. And that it could ultimately embolden Iran in choosing to develop its nuclear weapon capability, rather than pursuing a path of peace.

This was the speech you could have predicted five days ago, setting out his stall before the nation in advance of the vote in Congress. But the situation has changed: and next, after this short, intense and heartfelt call to arms, the President performed a dizzying series of volte-face to try to meet it.

“...But I am the President of the world's only constitutional democracy,” he began, reciting almost verbatim for a while from his speech of last week, emphasising his reasons for taking the vote to Congress instead of acting unilaterally as Commander-in-Chief.

Next, he attempted to assuage commonly-voiced fears and misgivings about his surgical strike plan. “Many of you have asked: won't this put us on a slippery slope to war? …My answer is simple: I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria.”

And, more interestingly: “Why should we get involved at all in a place that's so complicated, and where … 'those who come after Assad may be enemies of human rights?'”

That is a pretty good question; and the President answers it with aplomb: “It’s true that some of Assad’s opponents are extremists. But Al-Qaeda will only draw strength in a more chaotic Syria if people there see the world doing nothing to prevent innocent civilians from being gassed to death. The majority of the Syrian people - and the Syrian opposition we work with - just want to live in peace, with dignity and freedom. And the day after any military action, we would redouble our efforts to achieve a political solution that strengthens those who reject the forces of tyranny and extremism.”

Well, quite. But then Obama makes another lightning-fast pivot; this time to grasp the offer by Vladimir Putin, offering to take Assad's chemical weapons into Russia's own dubious care. “It's too early to tell whether this offer will succeed”, says the President; but then – suddenly – announces that he has postponed the vote in Congress until the veracity of this offer can be established.

Wait, what? Who would have suspected, listening to that hearty call to arms in the first half of the speech, that we would end up with an equivocation, a wait-and-see, a hold on even the delaying tactic that was already in process?

All told, this bewildering speech was an attempt for Obama to please everyone, and it will end up pleasing no-one. To those implacably opposed to action, he still looks like a warmonger. To those who feel action is needed, it was nothing less than a further shirking of his Presidential duty. What was most odd was that, for parts of the speech at least, Obama sounded like he counted himself firmly among the latter. But his lack of action is more telling than any number of fine words.

This speech was a contradiction: an appeal to conscience without any appeal to action, a study in vacillation. Another aspect is perhaps at play: if recent Congressional polling models are anything to go by, the President was on track for a humiliating defeat in any case. Does he now regret last week's surprising democratic gesture?

Putin's supervision of the removal of Assad's chemical weapons into protective custody may well be cleverly calculated only to dial up Assad's status as a proxy of Moscow, no matter how it is couched. Russia's core aim is to protect its only ally in the Middle East, and its only Mediterranean naval base. Rebel forces might also see this as an admission of American defeat, and they will turn in ever-greater numbers to Al-Quaeda affiliates. For Putin, this is a move of some political genius; if it succeeds, he has cemented his influence in the Levant, and if it fails he still looks like a peacemaker.

Meanwhile, even if chemical weapons are genuinely out of the the equation, the body count in Syria will continue to pile up, and a political solution will become ever-more difficult to seek. Because, really, what right will Obama have to ask for it?

President Barack Obama walks to the podium before addressing the nation in a live televised speech from the East Room of the White House. Photo: Getty

Nicky Woolf is reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Photo: Getty Images
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Bomb Isil? That's exactly what they want

The government appears not to answer the nature of its enemy, warns Maria Norris.

As MPs are set to vote on further airstrikes in Syria, it is difficult to shake off the feeling that the government does not fully appreciate the complexity of the problem Isil poses. Just a cursory glance at its magazine, the pronouncements of its leaders and its ideology reveals that Isil is desperate for Western bombs to fall out of the sky. As Martin Chulov argues, Isil is fighting a war it believes was preordained since the early days of Islam. Isil’s obsession with the city of Dabiq, in Northern Syria, stems from a hadith which prophesises that the ‘Crusader’ army will land in the city as a precursor to a final battle where Islam will emerge victorious. Dabiq is also the name of its magazine, which starts every issue with the same quote: "The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify -- by Allah's permission -- until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq". Isil wants a war with the West. If we don’t negotiate with terrorists, then we also should not give them what they want.

Further, bombs are indiscriminate and will inevitably lead to the suffering of those trapped in Isil territories. Isil is counting on this suffering to swell their ranks. Civilian suffering from airstrikes only underline the narrative that the West is at war with Islam, which plays directly into Isil’s hands. And despite misleading headlines and the genuine government concern with individuals fleeing to Syria, Isis is supremely unpopular. It is no wonder that its magazine is filled with glossy adds begging people to move to its territories.  You cannot be a state without people. Terrorist attacks such as Paris thus have a two-pronged purpose: they provoke the West to respond with its military, and they act as a recruitment drive. The fact that fake Syrian passports were found around the sites of the Paris attacks is no coincidence as Isil are both seeking to stem the flow of refugees from its territories and hoping to provoke an Islamophobic backlash. They hope that, as more Muslims feel alienated in the West, more will join them, not just as fighters, but as the doctors, nurses and teachers it desperately needs.

In addition to this, airstrikes overlook the fact that Isil is a result of what Fawaz Gerges calls a severe, organic institutional crisis in the Middle East. In a lecture at the London School of Economics earlier this year, Gerges pointed out the dysfunction created when a region that is incredibly resource rich also is also deeply undemocratic, riddled with corruption, food insecurity, unemployment and poverty. This forms an institutional vacuum that is filled by non-state actors as the population does not trust its political structures. Further, the civil war in Syria is also the site of the toxic soup of Middle Eastern state dysfunction. Iran supports Assad, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, fund anti-Shia groups in Syria. Throw in the Kurdish conflict, Turkey’s ambiguous position and Russian bombs, it is difficult to see how airstrikes will solve anything.

Finally, it is crucial that Isil is seen as a direct result of the Iraq war. The American-led invasion destroyed the institutions, giving the Shia majority power almost overnight, creating deep dissatisfaction in the Sunni regions of Iraq. On top of this thousands of foreign fighters flooded Iraq to fight the invaders, attracting disenfranchised and angry Sunnis. The result is that since 2003, Iraq has been embroiled in a sectarian civil war.  It is in civil war, inherently connected to the Iraq War, that you find the roots of Isil. As even the Prime Minister concedes that ground troops are necessary, albeit it regional ground troops with its own set of problems, it is important to consider what further monster can arise from the ashes of another ill-thought out military intervention in the Middle East.
We have had decades of military intervention in the Middle East with disastrous consequences. Airstrikes represent business as usual, when what we actually need is a radically new approach. Who is funding Isil? Who is buying its oil? How to curb Isil’s recruitment drives? What can be done about the refugees? How to end the conflict in Syria? What happens to Assad? These are questions hopefully being addressed in talks recently held in Vienna with Russian, Ira, the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states. Airstrikes do not answer any of these questions. What airstrikes do is give Isil exactly what it is asking for. Surely this is reason enough not to bomb Syria. 

Maria W. Norris is a PhD candidate and a teacher at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her PhD is on the UK counter-terrorism strategy since 9/11 and its relationship with identity. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.