President Barack Obama, an able writer and orator, is substantially challenged when he must speak about armed conflict. His formal speeches about warfare – whether he is lecturing the Nobel Committee in Oslo about just war theory, or muddling his Afghanistan strategy before the Corps of Cadets at West Point – are among his worst. Whether that is because his foreign policy speechwriters are among his poorest, or he is unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the subject, I don’t know. But his deficiency as a speaker on matters of war and peace is important and notable, since last night he had suddenly to lead his country into a fight rather than out of one.
I should note that writing and talking about war and its prospect clearly, lucidly and compellingly are very difficult. Despite the drumbeat of war the previous 12 years, American presidents in fact don’t speak about these matters very often. Most conflicts since the 1940s have been wars “of choice,” so the saying goes – but in reality most of them have required U.S. intervention and therefore an articulation of the reasons and means to the American people. That always requires the American president to speak to the public, to rally them, and explain why we fight. Unless we have been attacked – which has only happened three times in our history – this is always a difficult argument to make.
That’s what President Obama did last night to explain why American force is needed to punish the Syrian regime for its recent use of chemical weapons during its civil war. It’s strange to say for the President, who is normally so extraordinarily eloquent and poignant, who can find and distill the essence of even the most knotty and controversial political issues, that he still struggles with these issues. He’s in good company – not many of his predecessors did much better articulating why American military might must be brought to bear in distant countries. But it is important to examine why his remarks were so tepid.
First, the President has at least as much a fixation on the indelible image as his predecessor did. It seemed at times that for President Bush the only reality of the vicious civil war in Iraq was what he saw on television. And so the image constantly appeared in his rhetoric about the war: not the war itself, but what we saw of the war — a sort of collective, and secondary, visual experience. This both minimized and misrepresented the war, because by 2006 even television couldn’t contain the apocalyptic violence destroying the country: 600 attacks each day, two million refugees, thousands of Iraqi dead, hundreds of American casualties. The spectacular attacks that broke through the chaos and noise, such as the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, were only single pieces of a madness that threatened to overwhelm everything else – least of which, but importantly, was our understanding of the roots of the conflict.
Unfortunately, President Obama fell into the same rhetorical trope in his speech about Syria – as if the only proof that mattered were “the videos” of the recent chemical attack on Ghuta, an eastern suburb of Damascus. That is, the President issued the equivalent of a verbal hyperlink to the public. Click here, he said in essence, this is what you need to see. But instead of “seeing” these horrible crimes, why doesn’t the President simply assert them? He already mounted a pretty damning case. His rhetoric would be far more blunt, direct and true for it.
The President made no attempts to link this attack to prior suspected or alleged uses of chemical weapons. That is a reasonable omission, given the possibly tenuous intelligence regarding those attacks. But he also did not link the chemical weapons use to the larger, indiscriminate campaign against the Syrian people – the attacks by aircraft and helicopters, armored vehicles and tanks, and artillery – that have escalated, with grim logic, to the application of these unconventional weapons.
But this omission also explains the awkward position that the President, and our country, are in. Weary of war and reluctant to fight, it is difficult to parse the difference between these weapons of mass destruction. Both have killed thousands and forced millions of refugees to flee. The red line the President has drawn therefore may seem arbitrary. Why suddenly worry about chemical weapons that have killed 1,400, when the Syrian army and air force have without recourse to unconventional weapons killed ten times as many? The red line is the only thing suddenly implicating us.
Of course we know the difference and why the line must be drawn, for the sake of the region and international security, as the President plainly put it last night. But that leads to second peculiar trope the President returned to again and again during his address: the need to “send a message” to Bashar al-Assad, President of Syria, either through the threat of force or the application of force itself. But force is not a message. Force is a tool of policy, a means to conform your adversary’s behavior to your will. To see it otherwise is to kill people over a telegram. The President should stop talking about “message” and simply deliver it: Assad must surrender his chemical weapons or face the consequences. But that means the President must be willing to deliver those consequences and take the risks to do so.
Perhaps the President wasn’t so clear about all this because he recognized that to do so would return him to the political-ontological quandary that faced the United States and the international community in Iraq after 1991. Iraq resisted verifiable disarmament, even after its chemical weapons stocks were destroyed during Operation Desert Fox in 1998. The CIA took such resistance as proof the stocks existed. The resistance was a bluff because, as Assad has amply demonstrated, those stocks were on hand not to attack the West or defend the nation from invasion but to protect the regime from an internal uprising.
But once international law and inspections were invoked by Russia, the question of whether Syria will disarm becomes political, not technical. And that question could drag out for years. In the meantime, there is nothing keeping Assad from using all the other means available to him to crush out the opposition while we watch.