September 10, 2013
President Obama Speaks At Community College Summit With Jill Biden

   It has taken Barack Obama a long time but finally he found out why he is President of the United States. The revelation came late in his speech when he talked about what made America “exceptional.” It is our values, the fact that we would not, could not, stand by and watch little children gassed to death. It was, finally, a reason for the United States to take action in Syria.
The statement came late –late in the speech and late in the Syrian civil war. Also late was the statement that the U.S. could act at little cost to itself. It is just a truth that we have the military to launch an attack and without doing much heavy lifting. The ships with the missiles are already on station in the eastern Mediterranean. The missiles are armed. Our soldiers, sailor and Marines are on duty. This can be done without a single American hitting the beach or putting a boot on the ground.

The phrase “American Exceptionalism” is often a demagogic expedient. It suggests that America is particularly beloved by God –more so than any other nation. It is poppycock, rhetorical cocaine for conservatives. But tonight Obama employed it in a sensible way: America is exceptional because we have the wherewith all to stop the killing and deal harshly with the killer.

“It is beyond our means to right every wrong,” Obama said. “But 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. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional.”

Alas, this approach comes late in the game. The time to have dealt with Syria may well have passed. The civil war had gotten out of hand; American inaction has cost lives. Obama himself stated that the U.S. knew that the Syrian military was preparing a gas attacks. “In the days leading up to August 21st, we know that Assad’s chemical weapons personnel prepared for an attack near an area where they mix sarin gas,” the president said.

They distributed gas masks to their troops. Then they fired rockets from a regime-controlled area into 11 neighborhoods that the regime has been trying to wipe clear of opposition forces. Shortly after those rockets landed, the gas spread, and hospitals filled with the dying and the wounded.

And the United State did what? Did Obama warn Bashar al-Assad that American would hold him accountable for what he was about to do? Did he say that America would blow the Syrian military sky high? If Obama said any of those things he did not mention it tonight. Instead, he confessed to be a witness to crime –mute, inert and morally culpable. It has taken this president too long to understand that evil must be dealt with. The recognition of that came late in his speech –maybe too late to salvage his presidency and certainly too late for the Syrian children who were gassed.

Richard Cohen writes a weekly political column for The Washington Post.