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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Millennial Man: How Emmanuel Macron is charming France's globalised youth

At the French presidential candidate's London rally, supporters cheered for a reformist. 

If it weren’t for the flags – the blue, white and red of France, but also the European Union’s starred circle – the audience’s colourful signs and loud cheers could have been confused with those of a rock star’s concert. There even were VIP bracelets and queues outside Westminster Central Hall, of fans who waited hours but didn’t make it in. This wasn't a Beyonce concert, but a rally for France’s shiny political maverick, the centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron. He arrived on stage under a thunder of applause, which lasted the full minute he took to salute the first rank.

Since he resigned from his position as François Hollande’s economy minister last August, the 39-year-old relative political newbie – he used to be a banker and only joined the French government in 2014 – has created his own movement, En Marche, and has been sailing in the polls. In this he has been helped by the fall from grace of Conservative candidate François Fillon. Macron, who can count on the support of several Socialists, the centrist François Bayrou and the unofficial backing of the Elysee palace, is seen as the favourite to face hard-right Marine Le Pen in the election’s run-off in May.

A screen displayed photos of supporters from around the world (Singapore, Morocco, United States, “We’re everywhere”) as well as the hashtags and Snapchat account for the event. Rihanna’s “Diamonds” played as a team of young “helpers”, en anglais dans le texte, were guiding the 3,000 French expatriates to their seats. “We’re about 90 helpers tonight,” said Pierre-Elie De Rohan, 23. A History student at University College London, he joined the youth branch of En Marche via a school group.

The movement has been very active among students: “We’re in all London universities, King’s, Imperial, UCL”, he said. “It’s exciting”, echoed fellow helped Arcady Dmitrieff, 18, from UCL too. “We feel like we’re taking part in something bigger than us.”

Hopeful millennials are flowing to En Marche en masse. Macron is young, attractive, and though, like most French politicians, he is a graduate of the elite École Nationale d'Administration school, voters still see in him a breath of fresh air. “He’s neither left-wing nor right-wing," praised helper 18-year-old Victoria Tran. Her friend Adele Francey, 18, agreed. “He transcends the political divides that have confined us for the past thirty years," she said. “And he looks sincere," added Lena Katz, 18. “He really believes he can make a change.” The Macron brand, a mix of smart marketing, cult figure (the first letters of En Marche are Macron’s initials) and genuine enthusiasm previously unseen on the French campaign trail, has given him momentum in a political system highly based on the leader’s personality.

For Katz, Tran and many of their friends, France’s 2017 presidential race is their first election. “I want to be invested and to vote for someone I like," Tran said. “More than the others, Macron represents our generation.” Their close elders are hoping for a political renaissance, too – perhaps the one that was supposed to come with François Hollande in 2012. “I really believe he can make it," said Aurelie Diedhou, 29, a wholesale manager who has lived in London for two years. “On many topics, he’s more advanced than his rivals, a bit like Barack Obama in 2008. In France, when a politician has the pretention not to be corrupt, or to have held a job before entering politics, they’re accused of marketing themselves. But it’s just true.”

Macron occupied the stage for a good hour and a half – during which his supporters never failed to cheer, even for boring declarations such as “I want more management autonomy”. He passionately defended the European Union, and pleaded for its reform: “I am European, and I want to change Europe with you.”

Such words were welcomed by French expatriates, many of whom have feared that their life in the UK may be turned upside down by the consequences of the Brexit vote. “Britain has made a choice, which I think is a bad choice, because the middle classes have lacked perspectives, and have had doubts," Macron said. He promised to stand for the rights of the French people who “have made their life choice to settle in Britain”.

As far as Macron's UK co-ordinator, Ygal El-Harra, 40, was concerned, that the candidate would make a trip across the Channel was self evident: “We’ve got people in Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh, in Cornwall. And they’re not just bankers and traders: some work in delivery, restaurants, many are students... They perfectly represent French society, and we want to keep in touch with them.”

In 2012, London’s French community opted for Nicolas Sarkozy over Hollande, but the vote was very close (48 per cent to 52 per cent). Just as within France, where he appeals to both left and right-wingers, Macron’s internationally-minded liberalism, coupled with his fluent, fairly well-accented English, could win big among the expat. And they matter - there are about 100,000 votes to grab. “For us who are in London, it’s important to have an open-minded, international candidate," the teenager Tran said.

Rosa Mancer, a 45-year-old strategist who has lived in London for 20 years, agreed. “I loved what he said about Europe. We must reform it from the inside," she said. But she admitted her support for Macron was “a choice by elimination”, due to the threat of the far-right Front National and the corruption case surrounding Fillon. “He’s got no scandal behind him," she said. Unlike their younger peers, voters with more experience in French politics tended to choose the dynamic Macron because he was the least compromised of the lot. “It’s certainly not Marine Le Pen, nor Benoît Hamon, the sectarist Fillon or the Stalinist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who will rebuild our fossilised France”, said Roland Stern, a Frenchman in his sixties. “In 1974, Giscard D’Estaing didn’t have a party, either. But once he had won, the others followed him.”

British politicians had come to see the French phenomenon, too. Labour’s Denis MacShane and former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg sat among the VIPs. For the latter, the enthusiasm around a promising and brilliant politician rang a bell. Looking back on the 2010 general election, the former Liberal Democrat leader reflected: “Although my platform was very different at the time, the basis was that the status quo was letting people down and that we needed something different.” Clegg’s advice to Macron? “Make sure you seek to set and manage people’s expectations.”

As Clegg knows too well, there is a danger in bringing everyone together, and that is keeping everyone together without disappointing them all. If his name comes first on the evening of May 7, Macron’s real challenge will begin: forming a government with his supports for a broad political spectrum, and dropping vague pledges and marketing slogans to map out a clear way ahead.

In Westminster, hundreds of supporters were literally behind him, seated in tiers on stage. A massive screen showed a live close-up of Macron's youthful face. Something in his picture-perfect smile seemed to wonder what would happen if the crowd stopped cheering.