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 writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Yanis Varoufakis: The left never recovered from the fall of the Soviet Union — yet there is hope

A radical internationalism is needed to democratise the EU and breathe new life into the left.

The left has been in disarray since 1991 – it never fully recovered from the collapse of the Soviet Union, despite widespread opposition to Stalinism and ­authoritarianism. In the past two decades, we have witnessed a major spasm of global capitalism that has triggered a long deflationary period across the United States and Europe. Just as the Great Depression did in the 1930s, this has created a breeding ground for xenophobia, racism and scapegoating.

The rise of centrism is also partly to blame. For a period in the late 1990s, it seemed that this had become the new doctrine of the left. In Britain, New Labour under Tony Blair was never part of the left. Margaret Thatcher was delighted by the manner in which his governments copied her policies and adopted her neoliberal mantra, though she did ask the question: if you want to vote for a Conservative, why not vote for a real one instead?

Parties such as New Labour, the Socialists in France and the Social Democrats in Germany might have called themselves the radical centre, but that was just labelling. What was happening under the surface was that the progressive parties of the left were being lured into financialisation. In the 1960s and 1970s the centre left was aware of its duty to act as a mediator between industrial capital and labour. Harold Wilson’s Labour Party, Willy Brandt’s Social Democrats in Germany and others understood that their duty was to strike a grand bargain whereby industrial capital ceded to workers’ demands for higher wages and better conditions, while they agreed to help fund the welfare state.

From the mid-1980s onwards, the left-wing leadership abandoned this duty. Industrial capital was in decline and it was much easier to look towards the super-profits of the City of London and the global banks. A Faustian pact was made with the financial sector – European governments turned a blind eye to what the bankers were doing and offered them further deregulation in exchange for a few crumbs from their table to fund welfare. This is what Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did in Britain, Gerhard Schröder did in Germany and the Socialists did in France. Then the financial crisis struck. At that point, social democrats throughout Europe lacked the moral strength and analytical power to tell bankers that although they would salvage the banks, their reign was over.

The best hope for the left is to come together to defeat the worst enemy of European democracy: “Euro-tina”, the reactionary dogma that “there is no alternative” to the continent’s current policies. Hence the EU’s true democratisation is the only alternative. This is what my collaborators and I hope to achieve with our new Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25). We are compiling a new economic agenda for Europe, which will answer the question I am asked on the streets everywhere I go, from Sweden to the UK: what can we do better within the EU? If the answer is “nothing”, the Brexiteers have a point – we might as well blow the whole thing up and start afresh. The alternative to the “Year Zero” approach is to recalibrate European institutions in the context of a practical and comprehensive agenda comprised of policies that will stabilise Europe’s social economy.

The EU institutions are anti-Europeanist and contemptuous of democracy. People might wonder: if that is the case, why am I arguing to stay in, but against the Union? In response, I ask those who support the left-wing argument in favour of Brexit: since when has the British state been a friend of the working class? Never. And yet their argument is: do not dismantle it. The nation state was created to promote a fictitious notion of a national interest to co-opt labour and those on the fringes of society – the “lumpenproletariat”, as we once called them. The left understands that it is not our job to destroy institutions. Instead, we struggle to take them over and use them for good. I cut my political teeth protesting against the Greek state but I do not believe that it should be dismantled and the same argument applies to the EU.

Good people who are motivated to change society often fall out with each other. I am reminded of a scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian – when the Judaean People’s Front confronts the People’s Front of Judaea and the Popular Front of Judaea. DiEM25’s task is to try to convince our fellow left-wingers that the solution is a pan-European unity movement. A concrete example of the power that this can have is the election of Barcelona’s new mayor, Ada Colau. A DiEM25 supporter, she won the race against the odds,
having started her career running a protest movement that championed the rights of citizens threatened with eviction because they were unable to pay their mortgages.

The Syriza government, in which I served as finance minister from January to July 2015, failed to achieve change because we ended up disunited and the prime minister capitulated to the EU at the moment when he had a mandate from the Greek people to do the opposite. My hope was that if Syriza had carried on with the struggle, we would have been a catalyst for movements across Europe (such as the one that has fuelled the rise of Jeremy Corbyn) to join us.

The capitulation of Alexis Tsipras was a hefty blow to the concept of radical inter­nationalism, but I still believe that internationalism offers the solution to the problems facing Europe in this deflationary era. The number of good-quality jobs has decreased, investment is depressed and optimism about the future is being destroyed. It is the left’s duty to do all we can to end this. If we can explain to the masses what the sources of their discontent are, we have a chance to breathe new life into the left. There are no guarantees – just a chance.

This is the latest article in our “New Times” special series

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories