The Conflicted President Obama and Syria Speech: a Critical Failure of Leadership


–Richard E. Vatz*

      If we didn’t remember from Jimmy Carter’s presidency, we now know what it is like to have Hamlet as president.

     President Obama first told President al-Assad that he must step down.

     Also on August 20, 2012, he stated,  “that’s a red line for us…there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons.”

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     On March 21, 2013 to Israel, according to Slate, he said  I’ve made it clear to Bashar al-Assad and all who follow his orders: We will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people, or the transfer of those weapons to terrorists.

     Repeatedly he has said unambiguously that Syria’s use of chemical weapons, and less than that, the transporting of chemical weapons, would be stopped.

      When evidence first arose of such usage, true to form, the President hesitated, and when 1400, including 400 children, were murdered, he appropriately waited for incontrovertible evidence of its happening.  But he waited longer than that.

      As with all leaders who are not really leaders, the President hedged his bets…we would take action, but, along with Secretary of State John Kerry, throughout he emphasized the limited nature of our anticipated response: no troops, and Secretary Kerry actually said our response would be an “unbelievably small, limited kind”” of action.

     In his speech on September 10 on the Syrian situation President Obama asserted the perfidious behavior of President Assad but brought up the fact that people are war weary and that public opinion opposes his (the President’s) acting.  He put off requesting a Congressional vote of support in view of the possible agreement for Syria to put its chemicals in neutral hands or dispose of them. 

     He also backed off from any resolute, strong action, promising this would be very, very limited, reassuring those who wanted no strong action: “I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria. I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan.  I will not pursue a prolonged air campaign like Libya or Kosovo.

     He also found a way out of acting at all against the horrifying murders of hundreds of children, equal to 20 Sandy Hooks: “However, over the last few days we’ve seen some encouraging signs in part because of the credible threat of U.S. military action as well as constructive talks that I had with President Putin.  The Russian government has indicated a willingness to join with the international community in pushing Assad to give up his chemical weapons.

      The devils in the details – finding the weapons, verifying their totality, destroying the weapons – would follow.
     The president’s lack of public and Congressional support — cited, but not overcome as a challenge by the President — is due to the inference that his own heart is not in it and the fact that he has not pressured Congress to support him (“I really need you on this, Rep. Cummings.”).

     Leadership and power abhor a vacuum; Congress is now the country’s leader, and Vladimir Putin has supplanted the President as the major player in international politics.

      Do you like his hierarchy of values better than the United States’?

     Some people wonder what it would be like to have Jimmy Carter running America’s foreign policy again.

      Now they know.

      Next abdication of leadership: Iran.

*Professor Vatz teaches political persuasion at Towson University and is author of The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion (Kendall Hunt, 2013)

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