Syria speech: What we learned about Obama

The suffering of children – mentioned seven times in the speech – sparks Obama's moral outrage like nothing else. And his presidential 'bubble' isn't as impervious as some might think.

Evan Vucci/AP
President Obama addresses the nation in a live televised speech about Syria from the East Room of the White House in Washington Tuesday.

President Obama’s primetime speech on Syria Tuesday night seemed almost anti-climactic after all the buildup  – six network TV interviews the night before, the flurry of speeches and interviews by top advisers, the sudden opening Monday of a diplomatic path for dealing with Syria’s chemical arsenal.

Indeed, Mr. Obama’s announcement that he had asked the leaders of Congress to postpone a vote to authorize use of force against Syria was not even necessary. Action in Congress had already been put on hold.

But the president’s 16-minute speech did at least lay out, in one digestible narrative, his thought process on dealing with the Assad regime, which had crossed Obama’s “red line” after allegedly using chemical weapons on its own people Aug. 21. Obama also shed light on how he processes events. To wit:

Obama and children. The suffering of children sparks an emotional reaction in Obama like nothing else. As with his response to the school massacre in Newtown, Conn., last December, Obama’s eyes shone with contempt and moral outrage when he discussed the “hundreds of children” subjected to poison gas in Syria last month.

Himself the father of two young children, the president referred to the children who died no fewer than seven times – at times in graphic terms, including the searing image of “a father clutching his dead children, imploring them to get up and walk.”

And he directed one moral plea about the children to a constituency that usually backs him.

“To my friends on the left,” Obama said, “I ask you to reconcile your belief in freedom and dignity for all people with those images of children writhing in pain, and going still on a cold hospital floor. For sometimes resolutions and statements of condemnation are simply not enough.”

Two of Obama’s top foreign policy advisers – National Security Adviser Susan Rice and UN Ambassador Samantha Power – have also highlighted the suffering of Syrian children in their public remarks calling for US action. But Obama’s rhetoric Tuesday showed that it’s not just the women of his administration who are hard-wired to feel special compassion for children.

The Obama administration has shown videos that depict hard-to-watch scenes of the chemical weapons attacks to members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and reportedly considered including images as part of the president’s presentation Tuesday night, but opted not to, as children might have been watching.

'Outside' influences. The “bubble” in which Obama – and all presidents – resides is far from airtight. Though his didn't mention his wife, Michelle, in his speech, he has noted her hesitation over Syria at other times recently. On Tuesday night, Obama acknowledged that the public criticism over his handling of Syria had reached him, loud and clear.

“I know Americans want all of us in Washington – especially me – to concentrate on the task of building our nation here at home: putting people back to work, educating our kids, growing our middle class,” Obama said.

“It’s no wonder, then, that you’re asking hard questions. So let me answer some of the most important questions that I’ve heard from members of Congress, and that I’ve read in letters that you’ve sent to me.”

Obama presented some of the questions, then answered them, almost like a Q & A with the American people, but without the possibility for followups.

Won’t his call for limited air strikes in Syria, aimed at degrading its chemical weapons capability, just put the nation on “a slippery slope to another war,” the president said many Americans have asked.

“My answer is simple: I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria,” Obama said. “I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan. I will not pursue a prolonged air campaign like Libya or Kosovo.”

Other questions – What’s the point of getting involved without removing Syria’s dictator, President Bashar al-Assad? And what would a "pinprick" strike accomplish? – elicited this response, which allowed him to reinforce his point that Syria won’t turn into another Iraq.

“The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks. Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver,” Obama said.

“I don’t think we should remove another dictator with force – we learned from Iraq that doing so makes us responsible for all that comes next. But a targeted strike can make Assad, or any other dictator, think twice before using chemical weapons.”

Additional questions allowed the president to rebut other objections that have led solid majorities of Americans to oppose airstrikes in Syria, and made congressional authorization impossible, for now.

On the danger of retaliation, Obama offered an assurance that the Assad regime does not have the ability to seriously threaten the US military. On concerns for Israel, he asserted that nation’s ability to defend itself with “overwhelming force” – and the “unshakeable support” of the US.

On the question of whether enemies of the US – like Al Qaeda – might be strengthened by an attack on the Assad regime, Obama made this promise: “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.”

Obama acknowledged twice the oft-repeated charge that the US should not be the “world’s policeman.” And while agreeing with that sentiment, he rebutted the notion that that should mean doing nothing – bringing his argument back to children.

“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,” he said.

The followup questions to the president’s answers began even before the speech concluded. Where is the iron-clad evidence that the Assad regime was behind the chemical weapons attack? How can Americans be 100 percent certain, under the law of unintended consequences, that a limited airstrike won’t morph into a larger engagement? After all, at a Senate hearing last week, Secretary Kerry refused to rule out “boots on the ground” in Syria before changing his tune moments later.

That Americans – Republican, Democratic, and independent – are war-weary may be an understatement, making his unexpected request for congressional approval on Syrian airstrikes a lingering mystery.

In his speech, Obama said he believed American democracy is stronger when the president acts with Congress’s support. But even recently, in the case of Libya, US forces acted without upfront congressional approval.

Taking his case on Syria to Congress was always predicated on “the absence of a direct or imminent threat to our security,” as Obama put it Tuesday night. So if the diplomatic avenue that opened this week doesn’t pan out, Obama may still act militarily, even without Congress’s blessing. And in the meantime, Syria’s knowledge that Obama believes he can act unilaterally could provide the leverage needed to bring Assad to heel.

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