Obama’s terrible speech didn’t answer doubts about attack on Syria

REUTERS/Evan Vucci/POOL
President Barack Obama addressing the nation about the situation in Syria from the East Room at the White House on Tuesday.

That was a terrible speech last night. President Obama should not have given it.

In my view, all he did was repeat the one good argument he has been making all along, then say he was going to address the doubts that others have raised about the larger argument. But in fact he didn’t answer any of the doubts — not logically, convincingly or factually. And there are plenty of other awkward, difficult questions he didn’t even acknowledge, let alone answer.

The one good argument he’s been making all along is this: If the world bans chemical weapons, and someone can use the weapons without facing any consequences, then the ban is undermined and loses its power to deter future uses of chemical weapons. I believe that is true, as far as it goes.

But Obama has seemed to believe that that one argument is the answer to all of the objections others have raised to his idea of a U.S.-led attack on Syria — even a unilateral U.S. attack, since he has had so much trouble recruiting allies to join him.

On the libertarian/Republican/Tea Party right, I have heard both Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky argue that punishing bad guys or even enforcing international norms are not appropriate uses of U.S. military power, which should be reserved for defending the vital national security interests of the United States.

‘Danger to our security’

Last night, Obama said allowing President Assad’s use of chemical weapons to go unpunished “is not only a violation of international law, it’s also a danger to our security.” How exactly is it that? Obama explained:

If we fail to act, 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. If fighting spills beyond Syria’s borders, these weapons could threaten allies like Turkey, Jordan, and Israel. And a failure to stand against the use of chemical weapons would weaken prohibitions against other weapons of mass destruction, and embolden Assad’s ally, Iran — which must decide whether to ignore international law by building a nuclear weapon, or to take a more peaceful path.

A chain of causation with this many steps will allow you to get from almost any first step to almost any eventuality your imagination can conjure. If any country, on the battlefield, used chemical weapons against U.S. troops, I believe the United States, which possesses more and better weapons than any nation on Earth, would exact a price that the world would not soon forget. But to just throw into a fat paragraph all the bad things that might eventually happen if the United States doesn’t bomb Syria has a desperate and unpersuasive quality.

Obama specifically said he wanted to answer questions he has received from members of Congress and the public. For example, how can we be sure the war won’t escalate? His answer is nothing more than this: You don’t have to worry about escalation, because he won’t let that happen.

I would recommend he review how a Serb nationalist seeking independence for Bosnia assassinating the archduke of the Habsburg Empire in 1914 turned into World War I. No one intended for that to happen. If the United States bombs Syria, someone will likely seize the opportunity to retaliate. Until you see what they do, you can’t really know how others will respond.

On retaliation

Speaking for another set of U.S. skeptics, Obama asked himself whether Assad’s retaliation might be a problem. He answered that Assad doesn’t have the capability to do anything terribly scary and added that if Assad were to strike out against Israel, “our ally, Israel, can defend itself with overwhelming force, as well as the unshakeable support of the United States of America.”

OMG. A minute earlier, Obama had suggested that one reason to bomb Syria was to discourage Assad from using “these weapons [to] threaten allies like Turkey, Jordan, and Israel,” and a couple of minutes later, Israel can handle anything Syria can throw at it, and if it can’t, we can take care of the problem for our ally.

I really expect more logic and consistency from Obama.

Obama invokes Americans whom he said are asking why it is up to the United States to deal with this problem. (If he really wanted to ask himself a tough question, he might have asked it this way: If it’s the world that decided to ban certain weapons, isn’t it up to the world to figure out some way to enforce its laws, or can the world just count on the United States to do it?)

Anyway, here’s the staggeringly weak, devoid-of-facts-or-logic answer Obama gave himself:

America is not the world’s policeman.Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth.

Seriously, the answer to the why-America question is: Because we’re different. Also, we’re exceptional.

Here’s a link to the full text of Obama’s speech to the nation. Check my work, please, and see if he offered anything persuasive in the way of facts, logic or argument. Because I would like to believe in his powers of reason and because I think he is really not a warmonger at heart, I have been hoping that he had more than the one argument, but I’m starting to lose hope.

The good news, as you have no doubt heard, is that there is some possibility that the Russians will rescue him (and us and the Syrians) with a plan to work with the Syrians to place their chemical weapons stocks under international control until they can be destroyed. It seems far-fetched that this can work, but it would be great if it could and I’m glad Obama has decided to place the military option (and the congressional vote) on hold to see if it might work.

That development also would have given him a great excuse to postpone this speech to the nation until he could come up with a better one. I wish he had.

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Comments (29)

  1. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 09/11/2013 - 09:17 am.

    I thought he should have cancelled the speech altogether,…

    …, since there was virtually nothing to say except, “The attack is off. We are reluctantly being forced to give diplomacy a chance, because of those d*mn Russians – and all because Kerry stuck his foot in his mouth.”

    Obama, however, seems to know his credibility is so fragile that he couldn’t do the obvious thing, because of the appearance it would give. You know, like that “red line” statement compels us to go to war because otherwise the President would have egg on his face.

    Obama doesn’t see that hardly anyone believes him anymore.

    I certainly don’t, and I voted for him twice. These days, when I see him spouting some high-minded BS, such his long, tortuous litany of interconnected fallacies in the “Danger to our Security” text above, I just find it disheartening.

    He needs better advisors.

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/11/2013 - 09:25 am.

    Worst speech ever by this president

    Good thing Putin came along and pulled Obama’s bacon our of the fire eh? Didn’t see that one coming.

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/11/2013 - 09:35 am.

    There’s really just one question that matters

    This isn’t about credibility, or messages, or chemical weapons treaties (that the US didn’t even sign onto until the 1980s). It’s not about gas or children, or national security; there’s just one simple question: “Would a US military strike make the situation in Syria better or worse, or would it have no practical effect?” If you’re telling me the strike would make the situation better somehow, then you need to explain how that’s actually gonna work because if the strike has no effect or makes things worse, NOTHING ELSE WILL MATTER. The ramification of making the situation worse are obvious. If the strike has no effect what are you going to say? “Well we didn’t do it to actually change anything, we were just making a point?”

    I haven’t seen anyone asking or answering this question and Obama certainly didn’t answer it last night.

    • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 09/11/2013 - 12:05 pm.

      Same Question

      Paul, you and I are in complete agreement. That’s the one argument that has to be made before any other considerations are figured out.

  4. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/11/2013 - 09:39 am.

    I agree

    This is a speech that Obama wished he didn’t have to give.
    It looks liked he locked himself into an action that he thought at the time was clearly justified, then discovered that he was in a box where an action, while it might have had clear moral justification, did not have either constitutional or geopolitical justification.

    He could have jettisoned his original speech justifying an attack that no longer looked inevitable and simply expressed his relief that the situation appeared to have an international diplomatic solution, but I would say that he was and is skeptical that Assad would comply fully enough for a real solution and wanted to keep the pressure on and his options open.

    If he had gone through with his original plans and Assad did not manage any sort of immediate retaliation public opinion would have been behind him and he would have come out OK.
    However, he clearly had (justified) second thoughts about the plan and seized the opportunity to punt. Turning the decision over to Congress was clearly an attempt to avoid the action he had committed himself to, since Congress these days wouldn’t ratify the Easter Bunny.

  5. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 09/11/2013 - 10:14 am.

    It’s in Putin’s court now or…

    I suppose everyone hears a different portion of the speech, but I would say -regardless of repeating; restating the facts as-is – Obama has gracefully returned the ball into Putin’s court and created a quasi or be it real possibility that these two dominant powers can work together on this ugly situation?

    It’s now up to Putin to fulfill his own ‘peaceful’ cooperation with our government and create a successful solution and so activated, together?

    Cool move here maybe by Obama by returning Putin to center stage…or eat his own words…?

  6. Submitted by Alice Gibson on 09/11/2013 - 10:31 am.

    Well, you’re not entirely wrong about the speech

    He didn’t do a very good job of making the case. But the case that must be made is far greater than you apparently recognize.

    We are re-living the 1930s in a number of ways, both economically and politically. The world’s economy has been devastated, and is slowly recovering, as it was in the Great Depression. Russia, recently a world power, has been diminished and humiliated, as was Germany in the 1920s and ’30s. Russia has turned to dogmatic nationalism and bigotry under a political strongman, Putin, just as Germany turned to the Nazis and Hitler. Putin has become a hero to the American right wing, as Hitler was in the 1930s.

    A proxy war has broken out in which both sides have surrogate actors, just as the Spanish Civil War became a proxy for the principals in the subsequent WWII. Because it is a proxy for so many outside interests (US, Russia, Iran, Israel, Saudi, etc), the ramifications of the possible spread of this proxy war are complex and highly dangerous for both the region and the world.

    As in the 1930s, American isolationists are ascendant domestically, playing on the fears of a war-weary and economically discouraged public. They blithely dismiss dangers on the world stage as inconsequential. Their answer to the Syrian war is to ignore it, just as the isolationists of the 1930s ignored Hitler, the expanding strife in Europe, and the coming Holocaust.

    Obama is charged with maintaining worldwide American influence and a balance of power, keeping the Syrian conflict within borders (and, ideally at a stalemate as the ultimate dominance of either side portends no good result), protecting one of the world’s few unanimous taboos – the ban on chemical weapons, maintaining a functional relationship with Russia and Putin, and keeping idiots like Senators Paul and Cruz from completely deranging American foreign policy.

    It’s a big job, and he’s doing it very well. But he’s not selling it as well as he’s managing it.

    Roosevelt calmed the nation with fireside chats. Obama has attempted this with Saturday addresses, but we use such a multitude of information sources not available in the 1930s that these efforts don’t have a fireside chat-like impact, and Obama’s focus on the Saturday speeches has been less than laser-like.

    I think Obama believes the results speak for themselves. Eliminating bin Laden, evicting Gaddafi, getting the US out of Iraq and Afghanistan, not getting sucked into Egypt or (to date) Syria, health care reform, financial reform, steadily re-growing a devastated economy. His record is extraordinary, but he’s not been the salesman he still must be, to convince a cranky and impatient public to trust him on this critical but seemingly far-away matter.

    Surely Obama recognizes all of this, but just as surely it’s hard to see how he sells his program without a lot more public education than he’s been offering. It would take a dozen prime time addresses to the nation to explain all of this, and nobody, least of all the networks, has the patience for that.

    Looking back in 50 years, we may find the Syrian conflict was a turning point in world history, a moment of the magnitude of the Spanish Civil War. If that’s the case, let’s hope our President has learned from that history and can steer us to a better result. And let’s hope he can do a better sales job.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/11/2013 - 05:26 pm.

      This is not the 1930s

      We saw these comparison before the Iraq war as well. Neither Saddam or Assad are Hitler or Stalin. This not a rerun of the Spanish Civil war. And all these comparisons to 1930 seem to make a lot of weird assumptions. Even if the Fascists had lost the Spanish Civil War Hitler was still Hitler and he would have eventually invaded Poland. In fact the outcome of the Spanish Civil War was irrelevant. WW II may have been part two of a European Civil War, but it was not confined to one country the way the Syrian Civil is. The Syrian Civil war is not the result of anyone’s expansionist policies or invasions. And as for the gas attack, I keep reminding people that the Nazis were several years into the Holocaust BEFORE they started using gas, they weren’t even thinking about gas chambers in the 1930s. Aaaand when the Allies finally realized (again several years into WW II) that the Holocaust was underway, they decided NOT to do anything about it because they were already at war with Germany and they couldn’t figure what to do besides winning the war. Furthermore, I’m not trying to be indelicate but why is gas so much worse than a machete? The machete was the primary weapon of the Rwandan genocide, and the Khmer Rouge killed over a million people without a single molecule of gas.

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/11/2013 - 11:29 am.

    And I hate to say it but…

    This idea that there wouldn’t be any retaliation might be a bit thin. I’m pretty sure for instance that it was determined that the cyber attack that brought down the NYTs website a while back was launched by Syria or allies of Syria. How do we know that wasn’t a dry run for a cyber attack on our power grid, air traffic control, or even a nuclear power plant? We’ve been hearing for years that these systems are vulnerable and no one would announce the intention or the capability to attack them in advance.

    I’m just sayin, how does Obama know we’re really invulnerable? He’s planning on committing an act of war, Syria would be well within it’s rights under international law if it were to retaliate.

    The assumption of invulnerability makes me more than a little uncomfortable.

  8. Submitted by Sallie VanHouten on 09/11/2013 - 11:56 am.

    Syria

    Using chemical weapons against civilians is a war crime and shocking. I am stunned that we are not already in there doing something. I guess if it is about oil we run in guns loaded but this seems to barely raise an eyebrow. Makes me wonder would we be more upset if Assad had thrown them in gas chambers. The pictures reminded me of the holocaust. Can we really not help? If not us who? I am against war but also feel that we have to help those who are being harmed in such an egregious way. There must be something we can do. Those innocent children being harmed is totally unacceptable.

  9. Submitted by Michele Olson on 09/11/2013 - 12:16 pm.

    A change of thought

    I was against a strike until the beginning of his speech last night. The one thing – the only thing – he said that changed my mind, was that the Syrians had stopped shelling the area where the ricin was deployed. Obviously, they knew they didn’t need to waste any more of their armory.

    I’ve been questioning the validity of the claims, the effectiveness of such a strike, but one thing came to me last night, and I have been unable to shake it.

    Forget high-mindedness, forget solving the Syrian problem, forget teaching that psychopath anything about polite behavior. Oh, and forget the Al Quaeda, because they’re bit players in this.

    What we need to do is explain what will happen if such an event were ever to happen on American soil. Because I don’t think this was a desperate attempt on the part of Assad. I think this was a test case.

    Better minds than mine would argue that dropping the bomb on Nagasake and Hiroshima did not prevent the outbreak of global thermonuclear warfare. Maybe not, maybe it was sanity on everybody’s part. And maybe, horribly, a little bit, it was the other superpowers remembering what happened when America was attacked.

    Forget Assad. His days in power are numbered, one way or another. If he doesn’t turn over his ricin, he’s toast, and if he does, he’s a war criminal. He’s not really important to the safety and the security of the United States.

    But Iran is watching. Russia is watching. China is watching. Heck, even North Korea has their one tv on. I think the President did not say enough last night. If we don’t do this, the next ricin attack just might be here.

  10. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/11/2013 - 12:20 pm.

    The “diplomatic solution”

    might win Putin the Nobel Peace prize, but it does nothing to satisfy Obama’s primary objective, which was allegedly to punish Assad for using chemical weapons.

    “Obama said allowing President Assad’s use of chemical weapons to go unpunished “is not only a violation of international law, it’s also a danger to our security.”

    If the price Assad pays for gassing children is simply to turn over his chemical weapons, then Putin’s “diplomatic solution” would be like telling the Colorado theater shooter, James Holmes, that he can go free if he’ll just turn over his gun.

    Just to be clear then, when they accept the diplomatic solution, Obama or Kerry need to acknowledge that it is allowing Assad to avoid punishment for his war crimes.

  11. Submitted by Mike Downing on 09/11/2013 - 12:56 pm.

    Why?

    Why did he give this speech? Why did he draw a red line if he didn’t mean it? Why does he look so weak? Why did 50.8% of voters vote for him in 2012?

    Why did he run for a second term if he really didn’t want to be a leader?

    Why…

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/11/2013 - 07:27 pm.

      Too much

      why ning.

    • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 09/11/2013 - 08:19 pm.

      Better why?

      Why George Bush – worst ever and elected by the Supreme Court. Started 2 failed wars mostly with lies. And he did not win the popular vote. And he was never a leader, just a puppet for Cheney. Focus on those whys for a couple months

  12. Submitted by Richard O'Neil on 09/11/2013 - 12:58 pm.

    Mr Obama has his foot stuck in “it.” I am floored by the notion that our friend “good ole Puty” will help us out on this one – just to be a good guy. For a Nobel peace prize winner, our president is expected to do better.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/11/2013 - 07:19 pm.

      Putin will help out

      because he will achieve his outcome of keeping Assad in power and keeping Russia’s interests in Syria, like a port on the Mediterranean.
      Common interests are what make diplomacy work.

  13. Submitted by Rosalind Kohls on 09/11/2013 - 02:44 pm.

    Not a warmonger at heart

    Rest assured, Obama is not a warmonger at heart. He is an incompetent leader and in over his head. And Obama knows it. The purpose of the speech is to go down in history as being so against chemical warfare that he was willing to go to war against it. Obama is relieved that Putin gave him an excuse to stall until everyone forgets all about this debacle.

  14. Submitted by Logan Foreman on 09/11/2013 - 03:07 pm.

    All of you who have any

    Faith that the KGB man and Assad will carry through this plan to take care of all Syrian chemical weapons are terribly delusional. Still believe in the tooth fairy too, Mr. Black.

  15. Submitted by Neil Arnold on 09/11/2013 - 03:23 pm.

    Syria

    Very concisely.

    Remember the Holocaust where six million people died, (and 14 million non Jewish people). They were gassed, but it was not our problem, so we let it continue and stood by until it finally ended four horrific years later. The world needs to stand up against such behavior and remember history. The case for intervention may not have been well made, but the problem is the same and persists.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/11/2013 - 05:26 pm.

      The UN was created

      after WW2 for just this purpose, sir. Let them earn their huge subsidy from the American taxpayer.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/11/2013 - 07:26 pm.

        The UN was originally formed

        to let the victorious WWII allies maintain their position.
        Unfortunately, it was structured so as to give those (then) allies positions that let them control the U.N.’s actions. As a result, Russia has a permanent seat on the Security Council and can veto any U.N. related action.
        And of course while we are the largest financial supporter of the U.N., we are also the richest member. Our total foreign aid budget is less than 2% of the Federal budget; our U.N. contribution a fraction of that. And most of -that- goes to humanitarian purposes, not peacekeeping.

      • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 09/11/2013 - 07:27 pm.

        Not even close Tester

        Peace keeping and negotiation. Not a military machine.

  16. Submitted by Merton Backlund on 09/11/2013 - 03:55 pm.

    Where are the solutions?

    All i see are criticisms of the president, no constructive ideas. Where are the bright ideas from you people who hate Obama? This seems to have turned into a Tea Party blog.

    Imagine what GWB would do, or Romney, or any other Republican you can think of. Scarry.

  17. Submitted by Gail O'Hare on 09/11/2013 - 06:53 pm.

    I’m disappointed, too

    by the number of people whose primary focus is on critiquing the President’s speech as if they were debate coaches. I’ve heard a lot of it on public radio and cable news today, and here it is again. Thanks to those of you who’ve been thoughtful and actually made substantive points.

    We’re in a mess, and Obama did his best in less than 15 minutes to explain what’s going on to a nation of people who can’t be bothered when they might miss part of a ball game or Total Divas. I didn’t want him to put us in this position, but it was important for him to describe the horrific death caused by sarin gas, the indiscriminate annihilation of non-combatants, and the long history of world rejection of gas attacks going back even before the Geneva Conventions. ( I’m not sure what treaties of the 1980s Paul Udstrand is referring to. We’ve certainly been part of an international agreement to prohibit the use of gas – even though we split hairs about some piddling little herbicides and defoliants like Agent Orange and napalm).

    A big question Obama couldn’t answer, and which would address many of Black’s objections, is what exactly he had in mind as a limited strike. Of course he couldn’t give that away. No one announces the target and strength of a military strike. Unfortunately, because of the insurmountable obstacles in the way of actually neutralizing all of Assad’s chemical arsenal, we may yet find out.

  18. Submitted by Tom Lynch on 09/11/2013 - 07:19 pm.

    It’s not just Tea Partiers

    It’s the Tea Partiers and the Far Left that are making most of the comments. The Anti-War Left and the Anti-Obama Right. Wingnuts and Naderites of the world unite!

  19. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 09/11/2013 - 10:31 pm.

    Options

    Why do we care so much about the speech? Obama’s idea of a limited strike is an absolute nonsense – it will not do a thing to stop Assad; in fact, it will encourage him to do it again since a slap on the wrist is nothing new to him. On the other hand, it is not much better to hope that Putin will help. This kind of circus of negotiations will keep on playing, just like with Iran, while Assad will be doing what he wants.

    The choice should be between letting Assad (with the help of Iran and Hezbollah) fight al-Qaeda and other rebels or strike and kill Assad with the understanding that the new government will not be friendly or democratic but just hopefully not Iran’s puppet. American interests should be the main priority and either of these options will help.

  20. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/12/2013 - 10:33 am.

    The illogic of doing “something”

    I look back at this comment thread and I still see a lot of comments that basically argue that our credibility is somehow at stake or that we need to send a “message” to the world so that wrong conclusions are not arrived at. If we don’t strike it will give a “green light” etc.

    First, let’s recognize the fact that illogical arguments about “credibility” and “messages” have been behind almost every really bad foreign policy decision the US has made in the last 100 years. What did the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, Beirut, the Contra’s, the Taliban, the failed attempt to rescue the Iranian hostages, Somalia, and of course the 1st and 2nd Iraq wars do for our “credibility? Just to name a few. The problem is that like a bad parent Americans keep assuming that the only lesson anyone will learn from our military strikes is the lesson we imagine they will learn. The problem is when it comes to messages and credibility Americans tend to amazingly limited imaginations.

    Yes, the world is watching, and history has shown us that the lesson the world learns from US military adventures is NOT the one so many people here seem to be imagining. WMDs became a post Cold War phenomena because the world has noticed that the only way to deter US military attacks (Now that aligning oneself with the Soviet Union is not longer an option) is to possess a weapon that will harm the US in a meaningful way. The world has noticed that while the US will send a “message” to Saddam Hussein not just once but twice, North Korea can launch artillery attacks on South Korea and torpedo South Korean ships, and China can bring down US Navy surveillance planes with nary a shot fired in response. The idea that a country like Iran will abandon it’s nuclear weapons program as a result of yet another US military strike on a helpless country defies common sense. These military attacks of ours in fact are the very reason so many countries in the world are trying to acquire WMDs. Logically these attacks will accelerate those efforts, not deter them.

    As for doing “nothing” or “something”, look: you don’t do something that will make the situation worse simply because you don’t want to do nothing. The desire to do something is not a logical, moral, or legal justification to do something that either has no effect or makes the situation worse. So again, the only question that matters is whether or not a US military strike will make the situation in Syria better or worse? All this other stuff is just noise. You can’t commit an act of war that makes the situation worse and then stand back and say: “Well we had to something”, or “We thought it was the 1930s”, “We were trying to send a message”.

    Finally, the idea that we can “punish” nations with military strikes the way you punish misbehaving children or even criminals is simply breathtakingly absurd. Unless your actually going to kill Assad or the officers who ordered the gas attacks (assuming you know who they are and where they are) you are not “punishing” those responsible nor are you weakening their positions. The imminent collapse of Assad’s regime brought in Russian, Iranian, and Hezbollah support, US military strikes may just escalate that support. This is no time for simplistic thinking and narrow imaginations.

    Unfortunately Obama showed absolutely no inclination to think beyond simplicity and his own limited imagination in his speech. I hate to be indelicate but what’s so much more horrific about the image of a child killed by gas than a child hacked to death with a machete or shot to death with an AK47? These are horrid and brutal moral calculations but if you’re going commit an act of war on behalf of humanity you need to think like a an adult, you need to think it through.

  21. Submitted by Steve Hoffman on 09/12/2013 - 12:52 pm.

    Not at all terrible!

    Huh? I thought it was brilliant. By advocating a military strike, he forced the contrarian GOP to come out AGAINST just that, and then by accepting a diplomatic solution he forced them to do another 180. Obama comes out ahead and the people who just scream “No, no, no!” to everything he proposes end up, once again, looking like spoiled toddlers.

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