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.

Photo: Getty
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French voters face a choice: Thatcherism or fascism

Today's Morning Call. 

Francois Fillon has been handed the task of saving France from a Marine Le Pen presidency and, by extension, the European Union from collapse, after a landslide win over Alain Juppé in the second round of the centre-right Republican party primary, taking 67 per cent of the vote to Juppé's 33 per cent. 

What are his chances? With the left exhausted, divided and unpopular, it's highly likely that it will be Fillon who makes it into the second round of the contest (under the French system, unless one candidate secures more than half in the first round, the top two go to a run off). 

Le Pen is regarded as close-to-certain of winning the first round and is seen as highly likely to be defeated in the second. That the centre-right candidate looks - at least based on the polls - to be the most likely to make it into the top two alongside her puts Fillon in poll position if the polls are right.

As I explained in my profile of him, his path to victory relies on the French Left being willing to hold its nose and vote for Thatcherism - or, at least, as close as France gets to Thatcherism - in order to defeat fascism. It may be that the distinctly Anglo-Saxon whiff of his politics - "Thatcherite Victor vows sharp shock for France" is the Times splash - exerts too strong a smell for the left to ignore.

The triumph of Brexit in the United Kingdom and Donald Trump in the United States have the left and the centre nervous. The far right is sharing best practice and campaign technique across borders, boosting its chances. 

Of all forms of mistake, prophecy is the most avoidable, so I won't make one. However, there are a few factors that may lie in the way of Le Pen going the way of Trump and Brexit. Hostility towards the European project and white  racial reaction are both deeply woven into the culture and politics of the United Kingdom and the United States respectively. The similarities between Vote Leave and Trump are overstated, but both were fighting on home turf with the wind very much at their backs. 

While there's a wider discussion to be had about the French state's aggressive policy of secularism and diversity blindness and its culpability for the rise of Le Pen, as far as the coming contest is concerned, the unity of the centre against the extremes is just as much a part of French political culture as Euroscepticism is here in Britain. So it would be a far bigger scale of upheaval if Le Pen were to win, though it is still possible.

There is one other factor that Fillon may be able to rely on. He, like Le Pen, is very much a supporter of granting Vladimir Putin more breathing space and attempting to reset Russia's relationship with the West. He may face considerably less disruption from that quarter than the Democrats did in the United States. Still, his campaign would be wise to ensure they have two-step verification enabled.

A WING AND A PRAYER

Eleanor Mills bagged the first interview with the new PM in the Sunday Times, and it's widely reported in today's papers. Among the headlines: the challenge of navigating  Brexit keeps Theresa May "awake at night", but her Anglican faith helps her through. She also lifted the lid on Philip May's value round the home. Apparently he's great at accessorising. 

THE NEVERENDING STORY

John Kerr, Britain's most experienced European diplomat and crossbench peer, has said there is a "less than 50 per cent" chance that Britain will negotiate a new relationship with the EU in two years and that a transitional deal will have to be struck first, resulting in a "decade of uncertainty". The Guardian's Patrick Wintour has the story

TROUBLED WATERS OVER OIL

A cross-party coalition of MPs, including Caroline Lucas and David Lammy, are at war with their own pension fund: which is refusing to disclose if its investments include fossil fuels. Madison Marriage has the story in the FT

TRUMPED UP CHARGES?

The Ethics Council to George W Bush and Barack Obama say the Electoral College should refuse to make Donald Trump President, unless he sells his foreign businesses and puts his American ones in a genuine blind trust. Trump has said he plans for his children to run his businesses while he is in the Oval Office and has been involved in a series of stories of him discussing his overseas businesses with foreign politicians. The New York Times has detailed the extentof Trump's overseas interests. 

TODAY'S MORNING CALL...

...is brought to you by the City of London. Their policy and resources chairman Mark Boleat writes on Brexit and the City here.

CASTROFF

Fidel Castro died this weekend. If you're looking for a book on the region and its politics, I enjoyed Alex von Tunzelmann's Red Heat, which you can buy on Amazon or Hive.

BALLS OUT

Ed Balls was eliminated from Strictly Come Dancing last night, after finishing in the bottom two and being eliminated by the judges' vote.  Judge Rinder, the daytime TV star, progressed to the next round at his expense. 

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

Helen reviews Glenda Jackson's King Lear.

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Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.