President Obama on Tuesday was supposed to present to the nation his case for responding to Syria's suspected use of chemical weapons. But he remained vague on exactly what sort of action he planned to take, prolonging the uneasy limbo that has enveloped the issue.
In a brief speech, Obama primarily rehashed his administration's talking points from the past few weeks: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gassed his people, and the U.S. had to respond to deter him and others from using such weapons again. Saying that it was in America's national security interest to retaliate, Obama warned that a failure to do so could put U.S. troops in the path of chemical weapons in the future.
"When dictators commit atrocities, they depend on the world to look the other way," he said. "If we fail to act, the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons."
However, as has been the case since the August 21 attack, the president did not present a clear path forward, focusing more on the need to respond than on the specifics of a response.
Since news of the attacks first broke, Obama has offered a multitude of potential actions, his proposals evolving in tandem with the shifting situation.
At first, the administration appeared poised to strike Assad immediately. Secretary of State John Kerry called the attacks a "moral obscenity" in a speech that had all the trappings of a call to war. Predictions of an imminent attack soon began to trickle out from administration officials.
Yet within days, would-be coalition partners opted against a strike. In the most stunning case, Britain's Parliament voted down a request from Prime Minister David Cameron to approve a military response.
With potential allies dwindling, the administration indicated that Obama would perhaps go it alone in Syria instead. Then, in an abrupt change, Obama asked a notoriously gridlocked Congress to vote on a resolution authorizing U.S. military action — even as the administration hinted that it would possibly ignore a no vote anyway.
That was all before Russia seized on a proposal floated offhand by Kerry under which Syria would turn over its toxic agents and sign a chemical weapons ban to avoid military intervention. Syria accepted that idea, in theory, and Obama has said his administration is going to pursue it as yet another option.
As a result, in his speech, Obama said he had asked Congress to postpone its vote on military authorization, which has been widely seen as an admission that he didn't have the votes.
Got all that?
The constantly changing stories have led the administration to "[lose] the public's confidence in their veracity," National Review's Victor Davis Hanson wrote.
One day we are bombing and skipping authorization from Congress; the next day, everything is on hold while Congress vacations; the next, its vote may not even matter; the next, the "shot across the bow" is a full-fledged, non-tiny attack; and most recently, everything is on hold again while the Russians — in the middle of a civil war, no less — negotiate with Assad to account for and turn over his WMD. We are certainly not in reliable hands to make one of the most complicated interventions in recent U.S. history. [National Review]
Ahead of Obama's speech, the Washington Post editorial board wrote that the president was "in a deep political hole — one largely of his own digging." The Post added that he had offered up only a "stumbling, improvised, and often incoherent" rationale for a U.S. response.
On Tuesday, Obama may have only dug himself in further, alternating between saying the U.S. could not "resolve someone else's civil war through force," but then explaining the type of "targeted strike" the U.S. was still prepared to undertake. The mixed messages weren't lost on pundits.
I have been critical of the speech, but Obama did as well as he could at selling an incoherent policy.
— Ramesh Ponnuru (@RameshPonnuru) September 11, 2013
This speech should have been cancelled. If you don't have a clear action to announce or a clear proposal to put forward, wait. Just wait.
— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) September 11, 2013
Obama did at least say that he preferred the diplomatic approach — assuming the U.S. could "verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments." He said that he had spoken with France and Britain, and that they would all work with Russia and China to draft a U.N. resolution calling on Syria to turn over its chemical weapons.
Yet it was not until past the midway point of Tuesday's speech that Obama, after explaining the rationale for and logistics of a military strike, even mentioned that proposal. That left some wondering why the president didn't come right out and endorse that idea from the outset.
This may be the most bizarre speech ever delivered, since we know he's making a case for military action he's not going to take.
— John Podhoretz (@jpodhoretz) September 11, 2013
The situation in Syria has rapidly changed, especially in the past few days, making it reasonable to expect some calibration from the White House on its official position. Tuesday's speech was a chance for Obama to finally synthesize that chaotic jumble and offer up a coherent strategy for dealing with Syria.
That clarity, however, never came, and the impression that the administration is scrambling without a plan has only deepened. We may have to wait for the Russian offer to develop before we see how Obama will finally decide to respond.