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 a freelance writer based in the US who has formerly worked for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Emmanuel Macron's power struggle with the military

Reminding your subordinates that you are "their boss" doesn't go as far as listening to their problems, it may seem.

This is the sixth in a series looking at why Emmanuel Macron isn't the liberal hero he has been painted as. Each week, I examine an area of the new French president's politics that doesn't quite live up to the hype. Read the whole series.

It had started well between Macron and the army. He was the first president to chose a military vehicle to parade with troops on the Champs-Élysées at his inauguration, had made his first official visit a trip to Mali to meet French soldiers in the field, and had pulled a James Bond while visiting a submarine off the Brittany coast.

It’s all fun and games in submarines, until they ask you to pay to maintain the fleet.

“Macron wanted to appear as the head of armed forces, he was reaffirming the president’s link with the military after the François Hollande years, during which the defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had a lot of power,” Elie Tenenbaum, a defence research fellow at the French Institute for International Relations, told the New Statesman. The new president was originally viewed with distrust by the troops because he is a liberal, he says, but “surprised them positively” in his first weeks. Olivier de France, the research director at The French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, agrees: “He sent good signals at first, gathering sympathy.” 

But the honeymoon ended in July, with what Tenenbaum describes as Macron’s first “real test” on defence: the announced cut of €850m from the army’s budget, despite Macron’s (very ambitious) campaign pledge to rise the defence budget to 2 per cent of the country’s GDP by 2025. A row ensued between the president and the French army’s chief of staff, general Pierre de Villiers, when the general complained publicly that the defence budget was “unbearable”. He told MPs: “I won’t let him [Macron] fuck me up like that!”

Macron replied in a speech he gave to military troops the day before Bastille Day, in which he called soldiers to honour their “sense of duty and discretion” and told them: “I have taken responsibilities. I am your boss.” After the general threatened to quit and wrote at length about “trust” in leadership, Macron added a few days later that “If something brings into conflict the army’s chief of staff and the president of the Republic, the chief of staff changes.” That, Tenenbaum says, was the real error: “On the content, he was cutting the budget, and on the form, he was straightening out a general in front of his troops”. This is the complete opposite of the military ethos, he says: “It showed a lack of tact.”

This brutal demonstration of power led to de Villiers’ resignation on 19 July – a first in modern French politics. (de Villiers had already protested over budget cuts and threatened to quit in 2014, but Hollande’s defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had backed down.)

Macron did his best to own up to his mistake, assuring the military that, although this year’s cuts were necessary to meet targets, the budget would be rised in 2018. “I want you to have the means to achieve your mission,” he said.

But the harm was done. “He should have introduced a long-term budget plan with a rise in the coming years right away,” says de France. “It was clumsy – of course he is the boss, everyone knows that. If he needs to say it, something is off.” The €850m will be taken out of the army’s “already suffering” equipment budget, says Tenenbaum. “There are pressures everywhere. Soldiers use equipment that is twice their age, they feel no one has their back." The 2 per cent GDP target Macron set himself during the campaign – a “precise” and “ambitious” one – would mean reaching a €50bn army budget by 2025, from this year’s €34m, he explains. “That’s €2bn added per year. It’s enormous.”

Read more: #5: On immigration, Macron's words draw borders

Macron has two choices ahead, De France explains: “Either France remains a big power and adapts its means to its ambitions” – which means honouring the 2 per cent by 2025 pledge – “or wants to be a medium power and adapts its ambitions to its means”, by reducing its army’s budget and, for instance, reinvesting more in European defence.

The military has good reason to doubt Macron will keep his promise: all recent presidents have set objectives that outlast their mandates, meaning the actual rise happens under someone else’s supervision. In short, the set goals aren’t always met. Hollande’s law on military programming planned a budget rise for the period 2018-19, which Macron has now inherited. “The question is whether Macron will give the army the means to maintain these ambitions, otherwise the forces’ capacities will crumble,” says Tenenbaum. “These €850m of cuts are a sign than he may not fulfill his commitments.”

If so, Macron’s row with the general may only be the beginning.  It didn’t help Macron’s popularity, which has been plummeting all summer. And the already distrustful troops may not forgive him: more than half of France’s forces of order may support Marine Le Pen’s Front national, according to one poll. “It’s hardly quantifiable and includes police officers,” Tenenbaum cautions. All the same, the army probably supports right-wing and hard-right politicians in higher numbers than the general population, he suggests.

James Bond would probably have known better than to irritate an entire army – but then again, Bond never was “their boss.”