That was one of the clearest, simplest and most moving presidential speeches to the nation I can imagine. It explained and it argued, point after point. Everything the president said extemporaneously at the post-G20 presser was touched on, made terser, more elegant and more persuasive.
The key points: it is an abdication of America’s exceptional role in the world to look away from the horrific use of poison gas to wipe out civilian populations and kill rebels in a civil war. Given that the world would have ignored August 21 or engaged in meaningless blather about it, Obama took the decision to say he would strike. Since such a strike was not in response to an imminent threat to our national security, Obama felt he should go to the Congress, and reverse some of the strong currents toward the imperial presidency that took hold under Dick Cheney.
As that moment of truth loomed, the Russians gave way on defending or denying Assad’s use and possession of chemical weapons. Putin only did so if it could be seen as his initiative and if he could take the credit for it. Kerry’s gaffe provided the opening. And we now have a diplomatic process that could avert war if it succeeds. And of course, Obama is prepared to give such a proposal a chance. Any president would be deeply foolish not to. There is no urgency as long as Assad has formally agreed to give the weapons up, doesn’t use them again, and the process can be practically managed as well as verified at every stage.
I’m tired of the eye-rolling and the easy nit-picking of the president’s leadership on this over the last few weeks. The truth is: his threat of war galvanized the world and America, raised the profile of the issue of chemical weapons more powerfully than ever before, ensured that this atrocity would not be easily ignored and fostered a diplomatic initiative to resolve the issue without use of arms. All the objectives he has said he wanted from the get-go are now within reach, and the threat of military force – even if implicit – remains.
Yes, it’s been messy. A more cautious president would have ducked it. Knowing full well it could scramble his presidency, Obama nonetheless believed that stopping chemical weapons use is worth it – for the long run, and for Americans as well as Syrians. Putin understands this as well. Those chemical weapons, if uncontrolled, could easily slip into the hands of rebels whose second target, after Assad and the Alawites and the Christians, would be Russia.
This emphatically does not solve the Syria implosion. But Obama has never promised to.
The money quote for me, apart from the deeply moving passage about poison gas use at the end, was his description of a letter from a service-member who told him, “We should not be the world’s policeman.” President Obama said, quite simply: “I agree.” And those on the far right who are accusing him of ceding the Middle East to Russia are half-right and yet completely wrong. What this remarkable breakthrough has brought about is a possible end to the dynamic in which America is both blamed for all the evils in the world and then also blamed for not stopping all of them. We desperately need to rebuild international cooperation to relieve us of that impossible burden in a cycle that can only hurt us and the West again and again.
If the Russians can more effectively enforce what the US wants, it is a huge step forward to give them that global responsibility, and credit. That inclination – deep in Obama’s bones in domestic and foreign policy – is at the root of his community organizing background. Stake your ground, flush out your partner’s cards, take a step back and see what would make a desired result more likely without you, and seize it if it emerges. The result is one less dependent on US might or presidential power, and thereby more easily entrenched in the habits and institutions of the world.
Yes, he’s still a community organizer. It’s just that now, the community he is so effectively organizing is the world.