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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"We are not going to change": Barcelona defies terror with a return to normality

After a attack which killed 14 and injured scores more, shock gives way to defiance and unity.

A perfect summer afternoon in Barcelona suddenly turned into a nightmare on Thursday evening, a nightmare that has become far too common in Europe in recent years. 

“I was having a coffee here [in Plaça Catalunya] and was about to go and walk down there like everyday, because I live just off the Ramblas”, says 26-year-old Eneko de Marcos, pointing down the promenade. “I stayed because I was waiting for a friend, and when she came we heard a big noise and then everyone was running."

Thousands of people, most of them tourists, had been ambling casually along the Ramblas, the most iconic of Barcelona boulevards, which descends from Plaça Catalunya to the old port and the sea, when a white van had mounted the pedestrianised centre of the walk and began driving into people. 

Even after the van came to a stop, leaving a trail of dead and injured in its wake, De Marcos and hundreds of others were trapped for hours inside bars, shops and hotels while the police cordoned off the area and investigated the scene.

Seeing the Ramblas and the surrounding areas completely empty of people following the attack is, for anyone used to the area, unreal and the first reaction for most has been shock. Barcelona had felt safe both to locals and tourists, which had been coming to the city in increasing numbers since last year, many perhaps trying to avoid other destinations in Europe seen as more at risk of attack. 

Shock gave way to confusion and fear during the evening. The van driver was still at large and a series of ugly images, videos and unconfirmed rumours about other attacks spread across social media and the news. The number of victims increased steadily to 13 dead and more than 80 injured of many different nationalities.

At 11pm the city centre and its surroundings were eerily quiet and dark. Few people were venturing on to the streets, and the bar terraces which would normally be packed with people enjoying the late dinners Spaniards are famous for were half empty.

The next morning Barcelona woke up to the news that after 1am that night the Police had stopped a second attack in the touristic beach town of Cambrils, an hour and a half away to the south. What was going on? The streets of Barcelona were still quiet, far too quiet in a city usually noisy and crowded, and again the terraces, so symptomatic of the Barcelona’s mood, were unusually empty.

“I always said something like this would never happen in Barcelona”, says Joaquín Alegre, 76, walking through Plaça de Catalunya the morning after with his friend, Juan Pastor, 74, who nods and agrees: “I always felt safe.”

But slowly fear had given way to defiance. “Afraid? No, no, no”, insists Joaquín. “We’re going to carry on like normal, respecting the victims and condemning the attack, but we are not going to change”, says Juan.

Little by little the Ramblas and the whole area started to fill up during the day. People came from all directions, all kinds of people, speaking all kinds of language. The day was beautiful, the sky was blue, there are no clouds in sight and it got hotter by the minute. It began to look like Barcelona again.

“It’s important not to show fear, that’s what (the terrorists) want”, says Emily, an 18-year-old from Dresden, in Germany, who landed yesterday at Barcelona airport with her mother a few minutes after the attack. She says people were checking their phones while still on the plane and then one girl said aloud there’d been a terrorist attack in Barcelona. “It’s important to come here (to Plaça Catalunya) at this time”, says her mother, Anna, 42, both of them sitting on a low wall at the square.

Next to them, where the Ramblas begins, people once again filled the boulevard full of shops and hotels, which many locals also see as a symbol of how tourism has gone wrong in Barcelona. But Catalans, Spaniards from elsewhere and foreigners mingled happily, feeling united against a common enemy. Many left flowers and lit candles at the feet of a big ornamental lamppost on top of the Ramblas, many others did the same next to the famous Canaletes fountain a little down the promenade. 

“We the people have to respond to this by getting out and taking the streets”, says Albert Roca, a 54 year old publicist, who’s decided to come against the wishes of his girlfriend, who told him he was crazy. “I took a picture of the Ramblas and sent it to her and wrote, ‘Look how many crazy people there are’.”

Just before noon the Mayor of Barcelona Ada Colau visited the Plaça Catalunya with her retinue. She is a very popular figure who comes from civil society in a country where many citizens don’t feel properly represented by traditional politicians. Many people followed her carrying roses, a symbol of Barcelona, while they made their way into the square.

Shortly after, around 100,000 people packed Plaça Catalunya and its adjacent streets for a minute of silence begins for the victims. Only the flapping of pigeon’s wings overhead can be heard. And then an applause and a loud chant break the silence: “I am not afraid! I am not afraid!”, sang the people in Catalan.

Along with Colau in the centre of the square there was Carles Puigdemont, the head of the Catalan regional government and leader of the independence movement that has called for a referendum on 1 October, and along side them, King Felipe as the head of State, and Mariano Rajoy, the Prime Minister of Spain and a bitter political rival of Puigdemont. Seeing them standing together presents an image that until yesterday afternoon would’ve seemed impossible.

Very slowly people start emptying the square, where many still remain singing defiantly. “The attacks yesterday were a disgrace”, says a doorman just outside the city centre as Barcelona began returning to normality, “but we are going to carry on, what else can we do?”