When the America president appears on national television to address the American people it's a big deal. His subject, language, and setting need to carry weight-gravitas. Prime time presidential speeches are serious matters. And for the president-and America by extension-to be taken seriously his speech must be clear, cogent, and commanding; it needs to have a centrality of purpose.
We heard none of that Tuesday night from the president's speech on Syria. If Winston Churchill had been watching at 10 Downing Street, I think he would have said the president's speech was a pudding without a theme. Bret Hume, of Fox News, said it was a speech in search of a purpose. And Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal said the president should have cancelled the speech. Well, if not that he should have at least delivered a different speech.
It was a speech with a string of subjects-Syria, chemical weapons, military force, a congressional vote, and Russian diplomacy-but no focus. What we heard Tuesday night was the muddled message of the president's Middle East policy.
Everyone would agree that America's Middle East policy needs to be more commanding and less confusing. But that's not likely to happen until we get a new Commander-in-Chief because Obama's leadership, when it comes to foreign policy, could be defined as leading by following. Or, as he said during the Libyan Spring: "Leading from behind." But real leadership calls for being in front of issues-strategically and communicatively. And for one whose oratory is supposedly Churchillian and Lincolnesque, Obama's rhetorical skills have proven to be all hype and hysteria. And not very serious.
What we heard Tuesday night was the urgency of the unserious. The president tried hard to convince a public already skeptical about venturing into a Syrian civil war that it's best for an already skeptical Congress to postpone a non-binding vote authorizing military force against Bashar al-Assad. In other words, the president tried to persuade the public, who are not eager to rush to war, that we shouldn't rush to war. We should wait for congressional approval first. While on the other hand, he tried to persuade the public that America cannot stand idly by while Assad gasses his own people. So, while not putting "boots on the ground" and pursuing "an open-ended action . . . [or] prolonged air campaign," we must take "targeted" and "limited" action.
It seems urgent, but not really that urgent. We have to wait for Congress. So how are we to take the president seriously?
Besides, the president came nowhere close to making a credible case that Assad's use of gas within his own boarders posses a credible threat to U.S. interests, which, ironically enough, he admitted: "I believed it was right, in the absence of a direct or imminent threat to our security, to take this debate to Congress." But if that's the case, why contradict the message within the message? The president determined, he said, "after carful deliberation . . . that it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike."
So which is it? It is or it isn't in our national security interests to take action in Syria? With such a conflicting message how are we to take the president seriously?
And even if we were to strike it wouldn't be to remove Assad from power-something the president called for a year ago. Instead, the strike would be "to deter Assad from using chemical weapons, to degrade his regime's ability to use them, and to make clear to the world that we will not tolerate their use." But what if, in the words of Secretary Kerry, this "unbelievably small" strike doesn't do any of those things? What if Assad doesn't get the message? What if the strike topples the regime and the country (and its chemical weapons) fall into the hands of al-Qaeda backed terrorists? What if Russia's deal with Assad for the UN to take possession of the chemical stockpiles falls through?
The president offered no plan after the plan to strike Syria, if and when that comes. So how are we to take the president seriously?
With all the talk lately about American credibility, one thing is sure: America's credibility is damaged when the president, at such a serious time, over such a serious matter, delivers a speech that was just too unserious.