The American public appears to have liked President Barack Obama’s address to the nation. In an instant poll conducted by CNN, 61% expressed support for the President’s position. Some of them were probably relieved that Obama had finally presented his case against the Syrian use of chemical weapons in clear and emphatic terms. The others were happy with the implied bottom line: that a military strike was off the table, at least for now.
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This was the speech that Obama should have given immediately after the August 21 chemical massacre near Damascus. Had he done so, more Americans would now be supporting a harsh reaction towards Syrian President Bashar Assad and fewer Americans would be having doubts about Obama’s own performance.
If Obama had been as decisive and resolute then as he was on American television on Tuesday night, it would be he who would now seem to be controlling events, rather than the other way round. If he had invested as much then in promoting the strategic importance of a credible American threat to use force, it would be easier for him to convince people now that the Russian offer to dismantle Syria’s chemical arsenal is a product of careful premeditation, rather than an accident of mumbles and fumbles.
And if he had seem clearheaded and resolute from the beginning, Obama wouldn’t seem to be relying now on Vladimir Putin, Bashar Assad and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, for heaven’s sake.
Nonetheless, it was a good speech: good for Obama and good for those who are concerned about America’s spreading streak of isolationism. America isn’t the policeman of the world, Obama said, but nor can it ignore mass murder of innocent children. Doing so would go against America’s grain, would contradict its “manifest destiny.”
Obama broke no new ground in his speech, but he did sharpen the message: The descriptions of the suffering victims were more graphic, the enunciation of the Syrian regime’s culpability more damning, the alleged threat to America’s national security and its soldiers’ wellbeing more clear and present than ever before. Obama didn’t skimp on Israel, the Holocaust, or the core of the message that pro-Israel lobbyists are pressing on Capitol Hill and that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated on Wednesday: Inaction on Syria would be taken by Tehran as a green light to accelerate its own nuclear plans.
It was a competent speech, though it won’t be conducted into the pantheon of presidential addresses. President Kennedy’s famous inaugural speech in January 1961 made some of the points that Obama raised on Tuesday night, but with unmatchable style and elegance.