Obama’s Speech of Contradictions: Leadership Lost

Obama’s Speech of Contradictions: Leadership Lost

Raghida Dergham |

President Barack Obama has returned to his pattern of dithering and backtracking, after appearing on the verge of being firm for a moment, making the majority around the world wonder which Obama are they dealing with exactly, with certainty replaced with speculation.


Obama’s mercurialness has turned the compass needle for this week towards making a deal and evading a military strike. The speech of contradictions the U.S. president delivered was lost between trying to convince the American public of the morality of not burying the collective head in the sand over the use of chemical weapons – which he said he was certain the Syrian regime had deployed against its own people – and between trying to make it clear to the American people that he too did not want military action in Syria, and would prefer to avoid it through an understanding with Russia, which would see placing the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal under international supervision. But the speech of contradictions failed to mention any specific timeframe for chemical diplomacy. It did not contain any clear-cut strategy for what Barack Obama really wants in Syria: Is it a chemical deal, if it is serious? Is it punishment and accountability for crossing the ‘red line’? Is it saving face given where the vote in Congress was clearly heading, i.e. towards withholding authorization for using military force? Or is it that Barack Obama has a surprise in mind that will astound those wagering on structural weakness in the eyes of certain adventurers?


There are those who believe that Barack Obama is deliberately weakening the presidency, because he believes in the necessity of doing so. The proponents of this view adduce Obama’s insistence on shrinking the powers of the presidency and entrusting decision-making to Congress. They say that this is no accident, but is something that is at the heart of his strategy. For this reason, they reckon, Obama relinquished the power of deciding on military action in Syria, granting Congress a ‘veto’ on the matter – though he did reserve the right to make the decision in his capacity as president.


Meanwhile, the Syrian regime and President Bashar al-Assad have interpreted the self-imposed restrictions of the U.S. president – in addition to restrictions the U.S. congress imposed on any military operation during its deliberations – to mean that the regime is safe and that the United States does not want to hold it accountable, let alone remove it or even weaken it.


So far, President Obama has proven that he essentially does not want to take any action in Syria. He wants nothing, in fact. Developments dragged him into taking stances that had not been in his mind. Neatly two years ago, he said that Assad had to step down, before consigning this position into oblivion and the no-man’s land of diplomatic deals. He was practicing presidential rhetoric when he said that the Syrian president had to go, but then contented himself with verbal obfuscation. He did nothing to deliver on his promise – the promise made by the U.S. presidency, no less. He threw his promise, and then turned his back. Thus, he practically backed down on what he pledged, and walked away. More than a 100,000 dead and millions of Syrian refuges and displaced persons did not succeed in bringing President Obama back to calling for Assad to step down. Instead, he entered into bargains over the role of the Syrian president in the transitional process, while Russia and Iran insisted that Assad should remain in power – at least until the presidential elections in the summer of 2014, while the civil war raged.


Not only did the U.S. president backtrack on his calls for Assad to step down, but he also practically pledged not to topple the Assad regime when he insisted repeatedly that the goal of any military strike would be to discipline and deter the regime over the use of chemical weapons. He could have instead not gone public with that pledge – just like he could have reserved the right to take military action and keep its goals ambiguous. He did the opposite, reassuring the regime in Damascus that accountability would be narrow and confined to the chemical weapons issue, but not for any other violations. He threatened, and then he reassured. Now, Damascus has confirmation from the U.S. president that toppling the regime is not the policy of the United States.


When the use of chemical weapons caught Obama off guard, his pride was injured. Indeed, Obama had drawn a ‘red line’ over the issue – but even that was a slip of the tongue. In Obama’s point view, the Syrian regime knew that this was a ‘red line,’ so why did they embarrass him when he was seeking to avoid being implicated in the Syrian issue? He was angry, but he was also moved by seeing the children in their death throes, before becoming bloodless corpses. So he retaliated and threatened a strike.


Some thought that Obama’s true character came to the fore after seeing those horrific scenes, and that it was for this reason that he finally reversed his hesitation and replaced his weakness with a determination to exact punishment. But what happened was that Obama subsequently calmed down, and then backed down. He then found in Congress a way to evade individual responsibility, before he quickly discovered he was still in the predicament.


The Russian ‘precooked’ or ‘spontaneous’ initiative came as a result of another slip of the tongue – as it is said – by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. The proposal gave Obama yet another chance to evade military action, and to confirm that pledging to take military action came at an initiative from President Obama that he could have not proposed. But having put forward the threat of military action, he increased expectations. Then by backtracking, he increased confusion. After his second and third about-turn, he helped perpetuate the impression of him that he is a president lacking in the qualities of leadership.


President Obama, when he delivered his speech of contradictions, could have once again taken the lead by restoring the power of decision-making to the presidency. He could have told Congress that Russia made a proposal to place Syrian chemical weapons under international supervision, which he intends to study and test. If the proposal proves to be in goodwill and that it is serious, he would build on it. But if it proves to be a ploy to buy time and an evasive tactic, then he would use his powers as president to take the appropriate decision – whether military or diplomatic.


President Obama could have told Congress that in light of this development, Congress did not have to vote over a decision. He should not have asked to ‘delay’ the vote, but he should have said that he would inform Congress of his decision. He did the opposite. Once again, he gave himself room to retreat by shackling his presidential decision to a Congressional vote. Yet to prove his contradictions, he reserved the right to act and make a decision regardless of what happens in Congress, as he saw fit.


In his speech, President Barack Obama did not mention the Syrian opposition from a standpoint expressing confidence in the Free Syrian Army, which the Obama administration claims it wans to step up its support for. With this, Obama dealt another blow to the opposition, which relies on U.S. support, but which fears deep down the known American habit of letting down and then forsaking those who stand with it.


Nor did Obama put the Russian role in Syria in perspective, especially in terms of supplying the regime in Damascus with Russian military assistance. He did not explain American-Russian disagreements either, or the obstructionism of Russia and China at the UN Security Council in an attempt to thwart every American attempt to resolve the crisis politically, or obtain authorization for military action. He ended up only giving a leading role to Moscow in the chemical issue. Obama did not put any conditions or a timeframe to test the intentions of Russia or Syria in declaring readiness to place the chemical weapons arsenal under international control, with the goal of dismantling them.


Instead of going immediately to the Security Council and secure a resolution under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which would put to the test what Russia declared and Syria welcomed, President Obama agreed to dispatch the Secretary of State to Geneva to negotiate with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov over the chemical initiative. He agreed to ‘negotiations’ when he should have seized the opportunity to lock the initiative into a UN Security Council resolution. He agreed to take the issue out of the Security Council, giving Russia the gift of pacifying the Council and avoid Chapter IV, making the negotiations essentially bilateral Russian-American talks.


By doing so, the U.S. president has also let down his French allies, who rushed to the Security Council with a draft resolution based on the Russian initiative – to which Moscow responded with immediate rejection.


In truth, President Barack Obama has confounded his allies, more than he has confounded his enemies. The senior members of his administration portrayed the conflict in Syria from the viewpoint of a victory for Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia if Obama were to backpedal from his pledge of a military strike. As for Obama, he did not mention Hezbollah in the speech of contradictions, and mentioned Iran with extreme leniency.


What will happen in Geneva then, when Kerry meets with Lavrov? Is there really a comprehensive Russian plan to implement the proposal of putting Syrian chemical weapons arsenal under international supervision in order to dismantle it?


Lavrov will seek to ‘tame’ Kerry, to render him again a calm partner convinced in a political solution. Russia does not want a UN Security Council resolution under Chapter VII, and does not even want the Syrian issue to be discussed at the Security Council. Lavrov will try to confine the chemical issue to a bilateral framework, and will try to revive Geneva 2 away from the Assad Complex. To be sure, Lavrov and his chief Vladimir Putin believe that Obama is their de facto ally because, in their view, he is the man who does not want to carry out a military strike, the man who needs a way out, the man who will always dither, and the man who favors retreating over advancing.


But Russia may have backed itself into the corner of Chapter VII, because the implementation mechanism for placing the chemical arsenal under international supervision requires a UN Security Council resolution under Chapter VII – if Russia and Syria are indeed serious. But this also depends on whether the Obama administration is truly serious. Indeed, if its goal is to use the Russian proposal to evade, dither, and backtrack again, then it will be walking into the labyrinths of bilateral diplomatic negotiations with Russia for an indefinite period.


Logically speaking, the developments have engendered a situation where the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal is now on the table. Whether Bashar al-Assad follows in the footsteps of Saddam Hussein and agrees to the dismantlement of an arsenal that has been long claimed to be crucial in the struggle against Israel – thus agreeing to dismantling key abilities of the ‘Resistance’ – or whether he allows UN inspectors to enter Syria as Saddam Hussein was compelled to do while hiding his weapons, the result is one and the same. Indeed, both men placed their regimes above their countries. What is happening now is therefore a radical development that opens the door to international inspection and scrutiny of declarations, no matter how complicated or difficult this track may be.


Ultimately, while the chemical outlet has provided a temporary way out for Obama, Putin, and Assad, it may well be a permanent way in to Syria, resembling the famous one that once played out in Iraq. Regardless of whether we have on our hands the usual dithering, backtracking Obama, or an Obama full of surprises, a radical new development has taken place in the Syrian issue, brought about by the deployment of chemical weapons.