Billed as a game-changer on Syria, the President’s White House address landed with a thud that could be heard as far away as Damascus. Barack Obama has a huge credibility problem on Syria and on foreign policy in general, and Tuesday night’s speech will do nothing to help that. As Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer put it on Fox News, it was “one of the most odd presidential speeches ever delivered,” with no clear-cut strategy laid out, while urging Congress to delay a vote on the use of force against Assad’s regime.
In effect, Obama farmed out US foreign policy in the Middle East yet again to the Russians, appealing for time to consider the Russian proposal for securing Syria’s chemical weapons, a ruse described accurately by the Telegraph’s Con Coughlin as “a massive red herring.' He also used his address to take swipes at the Bush Administration over the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, both of which it should be noted, were waged with the backing of Congress and the American people, as well as large international coalitions on a scale that the Obama administration can only dream of.
This was a desperate speech from a president who has dug himself into a hole after carelessly drawing a red line in the sand, and then finding himself in the position of actually having to do something about it. Obama knew full well he was heading for a humiliating defeat in Congress, with just 26 Members of the House of Representatives confirmed as supporting him on Syrian strikes. This speech was above all a delaying tactic, designed to give him breathing space while his advisers think of how to get him out of this mess. In the meantime the White House is content to let the Russians, staunch ally of Assad, call the shots on the international stage, with Washington leading from behind.
The American people are overwhelmingly opposed to President Obama’s plans for a military intervention in Syria, what John Kerry likes to refer to as an “unbelievably small” strike against Assad. Just 29 percent of US voters back Obama’s handling of the Syria crisis according to a new poll this week. This speech will do nothing to assuage their concerns. The president was simply unable to explain in any convincing way why a US attack on Syria is in the direct national interest of the United States. Nor could he explain how airstrikes would actually help bring Syria’s civil war to an end or weaken Assad’s brutal regime in Damascus. Obama was also in denial about the nature of some of the rebel groups operating in Syria, identifying Islamists as “extremists,” while downplaying the growing influence of al-Qaeda in the country. He also made no mention of mounting attacks by rebels on Christians in Syria, a major cause for concern on Capitol Hill.
In essence, and this was amply displayed tonight, Barack Obama has no big picture strategy on Syria, or the wider Middle East, and is bereft of a clear game plan. His speech was also a sea of contradictions. He talked about deploying American military might but has no intention of delivering a decisive blow. He paid lip service to the ideal of American exceptionalism, but is happy to kowtow to Moscow. He urged Congress to support his approach, but wants them to wait before they vote. For these were the words of an exceptionally weak and indecisive president, one who seems to be making up policy on the hoof, as he stumbles and bumbles along on the world stage, with his hapless Secretary of State in tow.
How different to the halcyon days of Ronald Reagan, a man who led the world’s superpower with strength and conviction. The Gipper knew the meaning of American leadership, especially at times of crisis. Unfortunately President Obama can only dream of holding a candle to Reagan’s achievements, and at present is even outperforming Jimmy Carter as the most feeble US president of modern times.