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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Clinton and Trump: do presidential debates really matter?

The ability of the candiates to perform in front of the cameras is unlikely to impact the final result.

The upcoming televised presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are undoubtedly the most eagerly anticipated for many years. No doubt there are various surprises in store – this has been, after all, the most surprising of campaigns.

People will be particularly fascinated to see if Trump dials down his bombastic rhetoric and perhaps even adds some substance to the vague policy pronouncements he has made so far. To a lesser extent, many will also be interested in whether Clinton can add the necessary zest to what some consider her lacklustre style, and whether she can prove she’s made a sterling recovery from her recent bout with pneumonia.

It’s possible that some voters may in fact change their minds based on what they see in the two’s only on-camera encounters. And yet, barring a true disaster or devastating triumph, it’s unlikely that anything the candidates say or do will make much difference to the overall result.

This might not seem all that surprising for these two candidates in particular. Leaving aside how long they’ve both been in public life, social media and the 24-hour news cycle have put Clinton and Trump under incredible scrutiny ever since they announced their respective candidacies – and their every sentence and gesture has already been analysed in the greatest detail.

Trump in particular has received more free publicity from the networks and Twitter than even he could afford, and it’s highly unlikely that he will say anything that the US public hasn’t heard before. Similarly, voters’ impressions of Clinton are apparently so deeply entrenched that she probably won’t change many people’s minds.

Yet there are also broader reasons why presidential TV debates are less important than we might imagine.

Looking the part

Even before the media environment became as saturated as it is today, debates were rarely, if ever, decisive in presidential elections. The exception was possibly the very first TV debate in 1960, which pitted the then vice-president, Richard Nixon, against John F. Kennedy.

At the time, the election was so close that the young, relatively inexperienced but highly telegenic Kennedy was able to reap the benefits of putting his case directly to viewers. He was the underdog; a relative unknown in comparison to Nixon and so had more to gain from such national exposure. Nixon, as the establishment figure, had a lot to lose.

In the end, Kennedy’s narrow victory may well have been because of his debate performances. But his success also demonstrated another important feature of television debates: that viewers take more notice of what they see than what they hear.

Notoriously, television viewers responded very favourably to Kennedy’s film-star good looks, but were turned off by Nixon, who refused to wear make-up and looked sweaty and uncomfortable under the studio lights. In contrast, those who listened on the radio believed that Nixon had come out on top. It seems that viewers saw Kennedy as more “presidential” than Nixon, especially given his calmness under pressure. Kennedy did work hard to exploit some of Nixon’s weaknesses on policy, but in the end, that turned out not to be the point.

Kennedy’s success was one of the reasons that neither of his two successors, Lyndon B. Johnson and then a resurgent Nixon, participated in any such events when they were running for the presidency. Although some debates were held in the primaries, there were no face-to-face contests between presidential candidates in 1964, 1968 or 1972.

The next debates were held in 1976, another tight campaign. These yielded a notorious moment in the second encounter between Gerald R Ford and Jimmy Carter, when the incumbent Ford appeared to throw the election away with a poorly judged remark declaring that there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. As myth has it, this gaffe stalled Ford’s polling surge; he ultimately lost the election.

Yet even this was not decisive. Although the comment did the president no favours, it’s highly debatable whether it in fact had an impact on the overall result; Ford actually closed the polling gap with Carter between the debates and the general election. People’s reactions to the debate had less to do with the substance of his remark and much more with the media’s constant replay and analysis of that moment, which continues to mar Ford’s reputation to this day.

Selective memory

This pattern has continued in the election cycles that have followed, as slips and awkward moments rather than substance provide the media with dominant themes. Many people recall vice-presidential candidate Dan Quayle’s cack-handed attempt to compare himself to Kennedy in 1988, or George Bush senior’s ill-judged glance at his watch when listening to a question in 1992; few probably remember much about what policies they discussed, or whether, if they won, they carried them out.

If anything, the shortcomings of the TV debate format have become more pronounced in the current cycle. Although neither of the main candidates in this year’s election wants for national exposure, the primary debates have tended to favour the underdog and those who claim to be outsiders.

On the Republican side, Trump’s various moderate competitors were one by one hobbled and engulfed; Clinton, for her part, spent months slugging it out with her remarkably successful left-wing rival Bernie Sanders, never quite landing a televised knockout punch and ultimately only defeating him properly after six months of primaries.

While credible policy proposals seem to matter less than ever, things that would have once been considered catastrophic gaffes have become par for the course. Indeed, one could argue that Trump’s success so far is because he has built his campaign on half-truths and outright lies without care for the consequences.

So despite all the anticipation, this year’s debates probably won’t tell us very much about what will happen after the president takes office next January; the analysis will almost certainly focus less on what the candidates have to say and more on how they say it. Voters will no doubt tune in in great, possibly record-breaking numbers, but they’ll come away with precious little sense of what’s in store for their country.

Equally, the spectacles we’re about to witness might be pyrotechnic enough, but they’re unlikely to decide the result in November. And in the unlikely event that they do, it won’t be for the right reasons.

Andrew Priest is a lecturer in Modern US History at the University of Essex

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.