In Prime Time, Obama Struggles to Reason With Nation Over Syria

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For generations, the American people have had a standing deal with their Presidents: Go ahead and mess with the prime-time lineup once in a while, interrupt Who’s the Boss, Seinfeld, NCIS: Los Angeles, or whatever. But you better make it count. You better have something new to say. And when it comes to speeches of national security, you better leave the impression that you have this thing under control.

On Tuesday night, President Obama decided to test this unspoken pact. For 16 minutes from the East Room, he took over the nation’s televisions to repeat the same complex and contradictory case for bombing Syria that he has been making for two weeks, even though he acknowledged at the end, there is no longer an imminent need for the country to make a decision. He delayed the start of America’s Got Talent to announce he would be delaying a congressional vote.

It was a fitting turn of events, given the way the Syria crisis has played out over the past month. Three times now, Obama has been forced to announce a major pivot in his Syria policy, as he has been tossed about by global events and his own shifting judgments. First, his staff announced that the country was moving to war footing, days after a terrible chemical-weapons attack in Syria. Then, on the eve of an attack, Obama announced that he had decided this war was not one he should start alone. Finally Tuesday, on the eve of forcing a vote from Congress over that war, he announced no vote would be needed anytime soon, given diplomatic maneuverings by Vladimir Putin.

(MORE: Watch Obama’s Syria Speech)

Almost as soon as the President started to speak, his staff was playing defense on Twitter, pushing back against journalistic insta-reactions that judged the speech as a rehash of old talking points. “Presidents don’t ask for time to address columnists who follow every minute of the news,” wrote White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer in one tweet. “It’s for the public that doesn’t.”

To date, that task of winning over the low-attention-span public has not been going well. Over the past week, American opinion has hardened against the strike, by a rough margin of 2 to 1. And Obama has found himself hampered by rationales that are so nuanced as to appear impenetrable to someone not paying careful attention.

The problems were on display once again in prime time. He said he would not launch a “pinprick strike in Syria,” just before he described what he did want: A “limited strike” that would “send a message.” He evoked in graphic detail the humanitarian horror of children dying from chemical weapons, just after saying “we cannot resolve someone else’s civil war,” which has killed and will likely continue to kill thousands of children with regular bullets and bombs. “I’ve spent four-and-a-half years working to end wars, not to start them,” he said, in a speech about starting a new one.

At the core of Obama’s argument is a noble and simple goal: to maintain the global prohibition on the use of weapons of mass destruction. But that goal depends on an international resolve that has been lacking, and on an American President who can marshal enormous forces against violators. Citing other noble and simple goals, Obama has declined to play that role so far. He holds on to the idea that his own powers to decide should be limited, and that his powers of reason can persuade a war-weary world to do what it doesn’t want to do.

(MORE: 3 Things Obama Must Accomplish in Syria Speech)

So rather than tell the country how it is, with all the pomp and power of his office, he chose to ask the nation’s favor. Instead of an Oval Office address, from the seat of American power, he spoke in front of a giant red carpet in the main hall of the White House, a decorative room that he had to traverse alone twice, in long awkward walks to and from the camera. “I believe we should act,” he said at the end of his speech. Not “We must act.” Or “Now is the time to act.” Just, he believes.

Instead of asking the American people directly to support his decision, he asked the American people to engage in complex puzzlers after viewing videos of the chemical attacks online. “What kind of world will we live in if the United States of America sees a dictator brazenly violate international law with poison gas and we choose to look the other way?” he said, a question that even foreign policy experts would be hard pressed to answer with any accuracy. It has certainly happened before — in 1988 when Saddam Hussein gassed Iraqi Kurds — with ambiguous international consequences that remain the subject of much debate.

From the beginning of his rise to national office, the rap on Obama has been, for good and ill, that there is no binary choice he does not want to find a way to transcend. That transcendence, the idea that he could unite the country, got him elected President the first time, and it has helped steer him through a number of delicate foreign policy decisions, from Afghanistan, where he surged troops while announcing withdrawal dates, to the Arab Spring, where he supported democracy in some countries more than others.

But the problem of Syria may be showing the limit of this instinct. He wants to launch military strikes in retribution for the death of some innocent children and not others. He wants Congress to approve his action even though he may still act alone. He wants to maintain a war footing even as a new diplomatic solution appears on the horizon. They are all intellectually defensible positions. But it may just be that the people who tuned in Tuesday night, between the first and second hours of So You Think You Can Dance, were looking for a President to lead the country, not a man hoping to reason with it.

MORE: Chaos Reigns in Congress as Syrian Military Strike Slips to Plan B

 

101 comments
matt.crawford88
matt.crawford88

hey comrade obama,what about the millions of north korean children starved to death over the last decade,when do we bomb north korea,they have killed way more innocent civilians than assad ever did,assad is a rank amature compared to the north koreans

AminSan
AminSan

Obama, no proof, no credibility, what would you expect?

JohnMalverne
JohnMalverne

>>> “I’ve spent four-and-a-half years working to end wars, not to start them,” he said, in a speech about starting a new one.

See, this is the big crime here, that the media let's President Peace Prize get away with this paradoxical idiocy.  The US is not in a military conflict with Syria.  So in the name of peace, he's going to bomb them... and it will somehow NOT constitute war.

Ya can't blame him.  The media let's him get away with everything.  Quintupled drone attacks in Pakistan.  Continued war in Afghanistan and troops in Iraq.  Regime change and abandoned diplomats in Libya.  And it's bombs away in Yemen and Somalia.

And yet he is allowed to stand there and tell us all about what a peacemaker he is.  And he never ONCE asked for the UN's permission.  At least Bush and Cheney did *that*.  Where is all this "proof" he has that Asad ordered the chemical attack?

almonjer
almonjer

There is a disastrous pattern here:

-Obama addresses school shootings and his proposals are nothing and the follow up is worse

-Obama addresses the Trayvon Martin case and his proposals are nothing and the follow up is non existent

-Obama addresses the economy  with truly nothing proposals and the follow up is pure hell for most Americans

The difference between Putin and Obama:  Putin spends his time with world leaders and addressing serious issues in a serious fashion, has the real world experience and a disciplined and graduated history-and Obama was a 2 year US Senator, that spends his time hanging out with the social VULTURES Jay Z and Beyoncé. How can you be surprised that Putin is bending Obama over in front of the world?

SpikeLee
SpikeLee

Michael Scherer explains that he preferred George Bush because he was a Strong Man who was always convinced of the lies he wanted to tell America.

TIME magazine has always hired simple men who want simple answers to complicated questions.

BillIreland
BillIreland

Mr. Scherer accurately frames the contradictions inherent in President Obama's speech. But then he describes them as "intellectually defensible positions" and disses the poor viewers who might find it all puzzling. Perhaps the problem those viewers have isn't an inability to "reason" as Scherer suggests--but an inability to sense any coherence in the president's message. And perhaps the one who can't reason is in the White House. 

mrdarklight
mrdarklight

“I’ve spent four-and-a-half years working to end wars, not to start them,” he said, after which the laughter from the American people could be heard in Peru.

mydads1st
mydads1st

What struggle? This came about because the rapidly changing information created a forum where Obama skipped to the new information. It's good to have a president who can change and think on his feet for a change.

jrawlings99
jrawlings99

Oct. 1961 a young President  was  faced with possible Nuclear War.  49% angry their Republican candidate lost the election gave this President no support.  Republican lawmakers did everything to make him fail, 52 years later another young President faces his US enemies and a decision on Syria.  Americans accepted the decisions by Bush/Cheney who lied and committed War Crimes.  We might want to remember just who the USA is and the Americans how   have their lives to make our Nation the best in the World.

ToddShiba
ToddShiba

First we MUST go to war.  Now we MUST send in weapons inspectors. lol   They are playing Obama like a fiddle.  How did those weapons inspectors workout with Saddam ?  Terrible.  The inspectors were turned down from going to palaces, mosques and other places as well.  Blix wanted to continue the "cat and mouse game" but old GW said F-you.  


Keep leading from behind BO, it is comical

Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

The Ministry of defense of Russia called the leadership of the USA and Israel to the restrained behavior in the Mediterranean sea, as well as asked to avoid actions that could negatively affect regional security.

JimDolittle
JimDolittle

None of us have received a single bit of evidence that we can examine for ourselves besides video footage, which does not in any way tell us who did what. All we have had thus far is a number of claims by those "in the know." How can we make an informed judgment when we only have claims of evidence? 

They say "we have intelligence" or "our reports find," but where is this information? We have the President of Syria steadfastly denying that he gassed anyone, and our president saying he did--should we assume that Obama is telling the truth even without seeing the 'evidence' that he apparently sees? Since when did any reasonable person blindly make a judgment without evidence and on someone else's word alone?

Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

Moscow denies the accusations against the Syrian authorities in the application of chemical weapons near Damascus on August 21 this year, and also calls for an investigation and bring the perpetrators to justice in the frames of the International criminal court.

andersonccm
andersonccm

Stop running audio adds.  Even with ad blocker it doesn't stop them!

TheRealSu
TheRealSu

You ask for transparency and to see how the sausage is made yet complain about uncertainty in a crisis that's changing situation every single day. Maybe we don't deserve this type of informed transparency when all we do with it is ignorantly complain about missing our favorite TV shows because this Administration is smartly re-adapting their political strategy in this crisis as new information and developments unfold instead of stupidly delivering the drama and momentum you media types would have liked. You really don't care about whats happening, you only care about ad revenue and who you can throw under a bus to make reality-show drama to get it. 

bill1
bill1

There is nothing worse that an arrogant political so-called-writer. 

AsgeirIngason
AsgeirIngason

Yet, they have only claimed they have evidence but they haven't showed us any! The videos could be fake, and even if videos are real there's no actual proof that the regime was behind it. If Obama really has proof that Assad was behind the attack, then he really should present it. It's not unlikely that the rebels were behind the attack since they knew that it would provoke the US to attack Assad.

YeOldeSnark
YeOldeSnark

In less than a week the American public have been put through the ringer completing a cycle starting with the Mad Bomber and ending with Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain waving a piece of paper proclaiming, "peace in our time". 

Obama's speech last night was an intrusion and totally unnecessary. The major networks need to do a better job of  deciding not to cover the Obama publicity stunts from the rose garden, east room, or even the oval office.  This president's ego and the thought he can dazzle just about anyone with his speeches into play putty toys to be shaped in his hands as he so desires seems to know no bounds, but the patience and endurance of  a rightfully skeptical  viewing electorate being whipped back and forth from a readiness for war to a sudden pause  has its limits.


Obama has to go.


DianeNYC
DianeNYC

According to a report this morning, President Obama was so impressed by Vladimir Putin's ability to save him from having to bomb Syria that he's asked Putin to help him pass an immigration bill through congress. http://goo.gl/4DATMA

shbkyn
shbkyn

With these complainers of Obama.  He is damn if he do, and damn if he don't.  I think he is doing  a pretty good job.  He need to do something for blacks.

j45ashton
j45ashton

Have to wonder at all the conservatives and ultra-leftwingers I see ever attacking Obama.  Achievements of this administration are amazing:

1. Healthcare...which hasn't changed in this country for close to 80 years.  Once Obamacare kicks in fully next year, people will feel all the benefits & there will be no going back.

2. Out of Iraq

3. Pulling out of Afghanistan

4. Issued go-ahead that got bin Laden

5. Much of al-Qaeda leadership in disarray because of drone strikes

6. Economy steadily improving after worse financial debacle since Great depression

7. No Fly zone in Libya led to Qaddafi's end

8. His stand against Syrian chemical weapons has a chance of leading to the end of them without an attack

And yet...instead of recognizing all these achievements, on the right we get doubts about his birth, doubts about religion, his motives, nothing but endlessly complaining & carping from the Fox News lovers.  And from the left, he's never liberal enough.  

In the end, Obama will be well remembered and all the carping will have contributed exactly nothing.

mdcrawfish
mdcrawfish

What the president needs is the appearance of a threat of strikes against Syria. He never did actually want to do it. He has been working with Putin for over a year, to find a way to get Syria to give up its chemical weapons. The threat of a strike is motivating Putin to act on this. This was no accident, or stumbling by the president, it has been a calculated set of events. He knew Congress would never approve of a strike, in fact, he knows that Republicans will oppose anything he favors. What it does is buy him time to get the deal done. Why do you think Reid put off the vote? The House is full of baggers, who have no clue. If Putin doesn't believe that there may be a strike, he will not act. 

Arimathean
Arimathean

I thought the speech was excellent and much-needed.  The President's explicit claim that "America is not the world's policeman" was followed by an explanation of what makes this case different from other world crises (the Congo comes to my mind) where we do not intervene.  I think the speech was time well spent.

JasonFebery
JasonFebery

I, for one, am glad we have a president who talks to us as adults, who outlines the complexities of foreign policy, without resorting to Bush-era black-and-white simplifications of "us good, them bad".

matt.crawford88
matt.crawford88

@almonjer are you suprized,us in the 47% that did not vote for him always knew he was a empty suit,and could not lead his way out of a wet paper bag

StanleyCupp
StanleyCupp

@AsgeirIngason  

You people still don't believe his birth certificate is real. Why should he show you any evidence, you won't believe it anyway. You'll just continue to harp on. 

Those videos are skewed!!!!!

aboutbebout
aboutbebout

@j45ashton  Let's survive the next three years and then will talk.  You've sold Obama to yourself --- or maybe  "carped" yourself into him.

Mickey_Dugan
Mickey_Dugan

@j45ashton So much of that list borders on Parody, I wondered if you'd ripped it from The Onion.

This was especially funny:

"7. No Fly zone in Libya led to Qaddafi's end."

Laughable! Libya is a catastrophe, a completely lawless failed state. You can't sweep it under the rug and pretend otherwise.

Paul,nnto
Paul,nnto

I'm unsure that equating birthers on the right and critics of his policies on the left makes your point.

Gruven3
Gruven3

you hit the nail... Our President is an incredibly smart man...he initiated a politcal manuever on a global scale. He wanted protest and outcry from both home and abroad...he knew politicos, celebrities and every person with a opinon and a blog  would have a word edge wise. He just needed someone to step up and talk some reason to Assad. Putin abliged.

aboutbebout
aboutbebout

@JasonFebery  Ridiculous.  How old would you have to be to have him be understood by an adult?  All he does is talk.  He's the speech president.

billorights
billorights

@JasonFebery

Let's talk foreign policy for a moment...

Do you honestly believe the Obama administration wants to attack Syria in order to 'save the children'?

ThomasMacso
ThomasMacso

@StanleyCupp @AsgeirIngason Has NOTHING to do with his Kenyan birth, or Indonesian or Timbaktu, has EVERYTHING to do with PROOF. The UN said there is NO proof that the Assad Gov. did it, it could have been done by the Rebels.

In fact, Obama's NEW Savior, Putin, Said so.

keverich1
keverich1

@Paul,nnto

 Equating all conservatives with birthers exposes you as a partisan shill.

Paul,nnto
Paul,nnto

Please illustrate where I did that.

JimDolittle
JimDolittle

@Montage_Matt @AsgeirIngason Tell me, where did you find out that he killed protesters? An article or column, or what? Don't just refer me to something that will in turn refer me to something else, present the source of the information so that I can verify it. I'm willing to believe it if there is evidence.

Montage_Matt
Montage_Matt

@AsgeirIngason so now you are defending Assad? This guy has a very bad track record. The 2 million displaced Syrians aren't refugees only because of the opposition forces. Assad and his military were killing protesters for months. Where were you?

AsgeirIngason
AsgeirIngason

@aztecian @billorights @JasonFeberyYet, they have only claimed they have evidence but they haven't showed us any! The videos could be fake, and even if videos are real there's no actual proof that the regime was behind it. If Obama really has proof that Assad was behind the attack, then he really should present it. It's not unlikely that the rebels were behind the attack since they knew that it would provoke the US against Assad.