The art of wartime oratory, like so much else in the modern world, seems in precipitous decline. One of thinks of such great exhortations to war as Henry V’s St. Crispen’s Day speech to his “band of brothers,” or Patrick Henry’s “The War Inevitable” and its memorable cry of “give me liberty or give me death,” or Winston Churchill’s defiant vow to endure “blood, toil, tears, and sweat,” or even that call to battle that Mel Gibson gave in “Braveheart,” and Tuesday night’s muddled message from President Barack Obama
seems quite puny by comparison.
To be fair, Obama’s oration was no doubt hastily re-written to reflect all the recent developments, and there seems to have been little time left for the florid touches he usually favors. Still, even by current standards the speech was a conspicuously unpersuasive call to war.
The president began promisingly enough, laying out the reasons he believes Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad deserves some American military action. He helpfully explained to those just tuning in that “a series of peaceful protests against the repressive regime” has become a civil war which has killed more than 100,000 people without provoking any American response, but when the Syrian government recently used chemical weapons against its citizens “the situation profoundly changed.” In case anyone might wonder why those killed in the recent gas attack are more deserving of American assistance than the much greater number who were killed and are still being killed in Syria by more conventional weapons, Obama offered a gruesome description of the massacre, alluded to some unseen proof of Assad’s culpability, and recited a short history lesson about the international prohibition on chemical weapons.
Upholding that prohibition and other norms of civilized international behavior, Obama argued, is a responsibility that has fallen upon the United States as the world’s sole superpower. He warned that if Assad is not punished for the attack he will continue to use chemical weapons, perhaps in a wider war that would threaten American allies, and similarly insane dictators such as the ones currently running Iran would be emboldened by our inaction. The argument is compelling, especially to bloodthirsty warmongering neo-con cowboys such as ourselves, but then he went and spoiled it all by attempting to reassure the dope-addled peaceniks who comprise his base of political support that he hasn’t gone all George W. Bush on them.
He noted that his planned war is not polling well, which he attributed to the public’s weariness after the long years of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, and insisted that he ran for office he’d much rather devote his energies to such good works as “putting people back to work” and “growing our middle class.” Given the counterproductive results of his efforts on these projects one is tempted to rush into the nearest available war just to keep the president preoccupied, but of course Obama did not advance that very strong argument. Instead he promised that there would be no “boots on the ground,” that he would “not pursue an open-ended action like Afghanistan or Iraq,” and in a rare moment of bipartisan blame-laying he added that it also would not be a “prolonged air campaign like Kosovo or Libya.” While that dead white male Churchill guy would go on about “What is our aim? Victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be,” Obama instead offered assurances that his short and sweet war’s only objective is “deterring the use of chemical weapons, and degrading Assad’s capabilities.”
One might well wonder how such a bootless and brief action as Obama describes could achieve even these limited goals, but he was quick to add that it wouldn’t be the “pinprick” that some congressional critics have charged. He seemed especially offended by the term “pinprick,” and huffed with an uncharacteristic martial pride that “The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.” So we are assured that the war won’t be a full-blown Bushian affairs or a prick of a pin, rather something in the Goldilocks range of a just-right military action, and that it will be just enough to make Assad regretful.
There was also some quick rebuttal of the more popular arguments against the proposed war. Obama dismissed concerns about retaliation from Syria by noting the country’s lack of military might, although it seems to have enough of it to justify a war, and ally Iran’s world-wide terror network went mentioned, and he seemed quite confident that Israel will be able to respond to any attacks on its people. He also scoffed at the notion that the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist rebel groups Assad is fighting might benefit from an American military intervention, claiming that the majority of Syrian “just want to live in peace, with dignity and freedom,” which would make them unique among the peoples of the Middle East, and promised that after any military action “We would redouble our efforts to achieve a political solution that strengthens those who reject the forces of tyranny and extremism.”
We are unable to think of anything that has happened during the Obama administration that gives hope for his efforts to achieve such a political solution, but the president also touched on possibility that recent initiatives by Russian President Vladimir Putin might spare him the trouble of even a minor military action. He claimed that Putin’s offer is the result of “the credible threat of U.S. military action” and Obama’s own brilliant diplomacy with the man he has called a “bored schoolboy,” and held out hope that her erstwhile nemesis could prevent the need for war. So hopeful is the president that he has decided to delay a Congressional vote on the authorization for the use of military force, which is fortunate given the likelihood that he would suffer a politically embarrassing defeat if the vote were taken now, and he left us with a nagging suspicion that he even hopes the diplomacy will drag on long enough for people to forget that he ever proposed a war or gave this forgettable speech.
— Bud Norman