Arguably, the president should have cancelled last night’s speech. It had no real purpose since he had decided to reverse himself on his reversal — that is to cancel his request for Congress authorize his limited (but not pinprick) strike on Syria. It also might have saved him from an onslaught of horrendous reviews from a once loyal constituency, the media.
As I scrolled through my Twitter feed and surveyed the blogs and TV coverage I soon notices that aside from matters of style, there is little difference between the takes of Maureen Dowd and Dana Milbank; David Gergen and Slate; the Wall Street Journal and Jon Stewart; and Max Boot from Jeffrey Goldberg. Foreign Policy and former foreign leaders deplored his contradictory approach. Ron Fournier (“Obama and his allies are masters of ‘spin,’ packaging partial truths and outright distortions to a malleable public”) was as biting as Bill Kristol (“Obama now seems to be finding excuses to do nothing”). The few dead-enders trying to spin the speech were quickly called out by peers, who themselves had not been previously so disgusted (at least not openly) with the president’s handling of Syria.
A speech designed, I guess, to explain what the president’s policy was and recapture some trust in his foreign policy management (now polling at an all-time low) instead confirmed what conservative critics have been saying for weeks and months (years, in some cases): The president is muddled and confused, caught between his desire to be an historic figure and his loathing of his predecessor’s approach. He wants to vilify Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but not do anything about him. He wants desperately to be rescued by Russian President Vladimir Putin, but he is forced to acknowledge skepticism. The “sort of a God” has become a deer caught in the headlights.
On Capitol Hill, the speech broke the dam, as “no” votes for the now suspended resolution on use of force poured in. Staff for key House and Senate leaders voiced their bosses’ exasperation via e-mail. From one exasperated aide: “The most aimless Presidential address since William Henry Harrison’s inaugural. He calls for Congressional involvement before outsourcing responsibility to the UN. He calls for force and then calls for restraint. He says our national security is in peril, then entrusts the Russians(!!!) to fix the problem. A dithering, pointless exercise in existential foreign policy navel gazing.” A GOP House leadership aide: “This president made the case for stopping a ruthless dictator who gassed his own people, but instead is now exploring a naïve Hail Mary with Russia, one of our staunchest enemies. It is clumsy, it is dangerous, and it has real ramifications for America around the globe.” (Recall House leaders initially provided support for the use of force resolution.)
Obama’s two strongest assets in the Senate, Republicans John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) put out a statement that barely concealed their dismay:
We appreciate the President speaking directly to the American people about the conflict in Syria. We regret, however, that he did not speak more forcefully about the need to increase our military assistance to moderate opposition forces in Syria, such as the Free Syrian Army. We also regret that he did not lay out a clearer plan to test the seriousness of the Russian and Syrian proposal to transfer the Assad regime’s chemical weapons to international custody.
Such a plan would require the United States, together with our friends and allies, to immediately introduce a tough U.N. Security Council Resolution that lays out what steps Syria would have to take to give up its chemical weapons, including making a full and accurate declaration of all of its chemical weapons and granting international monitors unfettered access to all sites in Syria that possess these weapons. This Resolution would have to threaten serious consequences if the Assad regime does not comply, and it would have to be presented to the Security Council for an up or down vote. We would expect Russia and China to support such a Resolution without delay.
It is fair to say Obama has incinerated most support form Republicans and made it virtually impossible for intellectually honest liberals to defend him. It makes you wonder if Obama should have stayed in the Senate, where there is no penalty for empty pontification. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work in the Oval Office.