President Obama’s speech tonight wasn’t a serious event. Its purpose was not to win a congressional vote that may well not occur. Nor was the purpose to inspire the American public to support a military action that probably will not be undertaken.
Obama’s purpose, I believe, was to sound like reasonable commander-in-chief to folks who haven’t been paying much attention to Syria, but know he has proposed military action of which they are highly skeptical. Obama didn’t need to overcome the public skepticism about what now looks like a hypothetical attack on Syria; he just needed to prevent that skepticism from seeping into the public’s overall assessment of his performance as president (some polls suggest such seepage).
I think Obama probably succeeded in this “unbelievably small” and cynical endeavor. First, he made a decent-sounding case for intervention, something he should have done a long time ago. It wasn’t the best case he could have made, but it was sufficient, I think, to convince most folks that Obama’s stated desire to intervene isn’t unreasonable and stems from a good heart.
Second, Obama made his plan of action sound reasonable — more than a “pinprick” (which, he assured us, the U.S. military “doesn’t do”); less than a ground attack or a lengthy air campaign. Sufficient to punish Assad for using chemical weapons and to degrade his military capacity, but not enough to entangle us in another war.
What would this approach mean in practice? The question is moot, since it probably will never become practice.
Finally, there was Putin’s gambit to discuss. The most reasonable sounding response, at least to the not-so-well-informed, is that we’ll explore this diplomatic option, but continue to prepare to attack in case diplomacy doesn’t pan out.
Naturally, this is what Obama said he will do. And naturally, he claimed that the diplomatic channel has opened up because, in part, of his hard line.
Obama is correct that this channel wouldn’t have opened up if he hadn’t threatened to attack Syria. However, he’s wrong to suggest that diplomacy holds promise.
The key point, though, is that Obama has checked another box — he’s giving peace a chance, which is what the public wants. Obama has his fig leaf and the public, relieved that we’re not “going to war,” will be happy to assume that he’s more fully dressed.
As long as Assad doesn’t rip off the fig leaf by using chemical weapons again.