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

All the president did was repeat the one good argument he has been making all along, without logically, convincingly or factually answering key questions.

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

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.

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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.

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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.