Friday, September 13, 2013

Speech Fail

It’s been a few days since the speech to end all…claims that the president is a great orator. This is part II to Wednesday's post, giving background. So, what exactly did the president say in the portentous 9/11-eve speech?

In the fifteen-minutes it took to read, he referred to himself (I or me; I didn’t include we) on average twice a minute. Near the beginning, he used words intended to pull in the military-supporting conservatives, using angles possibly provided him by Speaker Boehner. He used the one significant reason for taking action: use of biological weapons is against the rules of war, and must be punished, or others will be more likely to use them.
9/10/2013 Speech on Syria
In the first couple of days following the August 21 attack, I could feel the pull of that argument as well, and the word from the White House was that they “knew” without doubt that Assad had done it. But, because he has undermined his credibility so thoroughly since we’ve come to know him on the public stage, when rumors of other possibilities came out, it was easy to doubt that assessment.
During the speech, the president did spend a few words to support the claim of Assad’s guilt:
We know the Assad regime was responsible. In the days leading up to August 21st, we know that Assad’s chemical weapons personnel prepared for an attack near an area where they mix sarin gas. They distributed gasmasks to their troops. Then they fired rockets from a regime-controlled area into 11 neighborhoods that the regime has been trying to wipe clear of opposition forces. Shortly after those rockets landed, the gas spread, and hospitals filled with the dying and the wounded. We know senior figures in Assad’s military machine reviewed the results of the attack, and the regime increased their shelling of the same neighborhoods in the days that followed. We’ve also studied samples of blood and hair from people at the site that tested positive for sarin.
Not bad, as evidence goes. Some of it only verifies there was a deadly gas attack. But some pointed clearly to the Assad regime. So why, during the extra week he had to build up public support, did this evidence not get included in every story? Can we trust these claims, without supporting evidence from additional sources (British or Israeli intel, for example), coming from our lying president?
The president did a not-bad job of reiterating the Bush policy of pre-emption:
If we fail to act, the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons. As the ban against these weapons erodes, other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas, and using them. Over time, our troops would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield. And it could be easier for terrorist organizations to obtain these weapons, and to use them to attack civilians.
He voices the arguments against a Syrian strike, and attempts to discount them:
·         It could put us on a slippery slope to another war.
·         Not worth doing a small strike that doesn’t take out Assad.
·         It will increase danger of retaliation.
·         Why get involved in complicated situation where we have no interest?
·         Why do we have to be the world’s policeman?
His dismissals were not particularly effective, but at least they were attempted. Mostly they amount to, "These are of no concern to me."
The odd thing about the speech was that, up till this point he has built up the reason for taking action, including the assertion that all avenues of diplomacy and political pressure had already failed. Having led us to this point, he finishes with this all-other-options-have-been-tried-and-failed paragraph:
I have a deeply held preference for peaceful solutions. Over the last two years, my administration has tried diplomacy and sanctions, warning and negotiations—but chemical weapons were still used by the Assad regime.
Logically, then, the next section should be encouraging Congress to authorize the use of force. That's what the speech was scheduled to do. But—surprise!
The Russian government has indicated a willingness to join with the international community in pushing Assad to give up his chemical weapons. The Assad regime has now admitted that it has these weapons, and even said they’d join the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits their use.
What a great idea! Why didn’t we think of that? After all, inspections worked so well in Iraq during the 1990s. Oh, if only we’d had Russia involved in diplomacy before! And who better to safeguard these dangerous weapons if/when Syria turns them over? (I'm assuming you can hear irony as you read this. Also expect the spin to be that it was our threat that brought about this new diplomatic possibility.)
There’s something about the Chemical Weapons* Convention that caught my attention—that Syria would “join.” So I looked it up. The CWC became effective in 1997, when 65 states (nations) had ratified the agreement. Currently 189 countries have signed on. Only five UN recognized states have not: Angola, North Korea, Egypt, South Sudan, and Syria. The use of chemical weapons was the “red line” that the president said in 2012 would “change his calculus” toward Syria, and that last week he claimed was the not his, but the world’s red line. The CWC makes it a red line for the countries that agreed with it; the other countries presumably don’t think chemical weapons are too savage for use even in war—so anyone tangling with those countries, beware. Syria did not break a treaty by using chemical weapons on its own people; it never said it wouldn’t use them. And so far (that we know of) it hasn’t used them beyond its own borders.
Without question the use of chemical weapons in Syria is abominable—I would use the word savage—but it was not a broken agreement. Many other savage acts have gone on in Syria as well; one of the rebels recently ate the heart of an enemy, with video boldly posted for the world to see. So you’ve got savages fighting savages. Do we punish for 1000 deaths by chemical weapons, but ignore 100,000 deaths because regular rockets were used? Is it our job to decide what and whom to punish?
There are no good political actors in Syria. We have no apparent national interest there. Good people can disagree on whether we should hold accountable anyone who uses chemical weapons, regardless of their promises. But the president failed at every level, either to convince us of the wisdom of taking action, or to convince us the reasoning behind his sudden new plan not to take action.
What was the speech for? He said it was to explain “why [Syria] matters, and where we go from here.” We heard what we already knew, that chemical weapons are bad. We did not learn why Syria matters to us as Americans. And we did not learn what we are going to do. But we can count on our president to dither.
Here is a plan I would suggest: let the savages within Syria knock each other out. But make a path for getting innocent refugees the heck out of there. They would have to realize they will need to adopt the freedom cultures of any nation they move to, and assimilate themselves into their new country. This could be the best possible outcome for Christians living in Syria, as well as any others who would prefer freedom to whatever brand of tyranny has reigned there for so long.
*I used the term "biological weapons" in my last post; I have been thinking of them as the same: weapons used to kill mainly innocents through illness. But there is probably a difference. There are chemicals used this way, and there are biological infectious materials that could be weaponized. A distinction possibly worth noting. I don't see anything in the description of the CWC to include biological weapons separate from chemical weapons, and I had thought the use of both was considered against the rules of war, but I may be unaware of a separate agreement for biological weapons specifically.

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