The Power of Explanation: Why's Obama's Speech on Syria Worked

Explainer in Chief: President Obama speaks to the country on Syria on September 10, 2013
I do love Bill Clinton's unofficial role in the Obama administration as "Secretary of explainin' stuff", but it turns out the current president himself isn't half bad at it. Last night, the president spoke for only 15 minutes, but he focused his address on explaining to the American people exactly what is happening in Syria, exactly what he has proposed to do about it (especially with regard to military strike) and the possibility of diplomatic solution that have surfaced in the last days. Basically, the president cut through the fog of media and ideological obfuscation, and it worked.
According to the [CNN/ORC] poll [of those who watched the president's speech], 61% said they support the president's position on Syria, with 37% saying they oppose his response to the Syrian government's alleged use of chemical weapons against its own citizens.
What's more, it was a half-and-half split (within the margin of error) that the president made a convincing case for military action if needed, and by a two-to-one margin (32% to 16%), viewers said the speech made them more confident in the president's leadership. The rest didn't change their view.

The president's success, as I see it, came from his point-by-point explanation of the administration's approach as he answered the major questions rising in the public debate - questions arising out of a mixture of Iraq fatigue and the general failure of the press to achieve any precision in their coverage.

Question 1: War fatigue
THE PRESIDENT: First, many of you have asked, won’t this put us on a slippery slope to another war? One man wrote to me that we are “still recovering from our involvement in Iraq.” A veteran put it more bluntly: “This nation is sick and tired of war.”

My answer is simple: 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. This would be a targeted strike to achieve a clear objective: deterring the use of chemical weapons, and degrading Assad’s capabilities.
The administration has had this position from the day John Kerry began building the case for a forceful response to the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons on civilians. The administration has, from day one, drawn a line against sending American troops to Syria in response. And they have always defined the objective clearly, as the president did last night.

Yet, if you ask the venerable cable pundits and some of the loudest opponents of the president (I would like to separate anti-war principled opponents here from the loudmouths who see this as nothing more than opportunity to fundraise and degrade the president), the president has been an utter failure at defining a clear objective, and he was going to put Americans smack dab in the middle of a civil war. Well, the objective doesn't get any clearer than one sentence, and let's hope the "we are getting into another unending war in the middle east" line of lies can finally be laid to rest..

It isn't so much that the administration had previously failed to describe it tactics and its objective. It's that people who wanted to stir up controversy (as opposed to engage in debate) obfuscated.

Question 2: Doesn't limited = ineffective?

For every emotarian obfuscating limited action with a large scale, unending war, there is a neocon having a meltdown that a limited strike isn't worth it because it won't change anything. They too are wrong.
Others have asked whether it's worth acting if we don’t take out Assad. As some members of Congress have said, there’s no point in simply doing a “pinprick” strike in Syria.

Let me make something clear: The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks. Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver. I don't think we should remove another dictator with force -- we learned from Iraq that doing so makes us responsible for all that comes next. But a targeted strike can make Assad, or any other dictator, think twice before using chemical weapons.
I imagine that part of the president's address brought on some pretty nasty head explosions in conservative land, as the president just called out the chest-thumpers' lack of faith in the ability of the United States, and stripped off their flag-wrapped hypocrisy for everyone to see.

Question 3: But if Syria retaliates, won't it cause World War 3???
Other questions involve the dangers of retaliation. We don’t dismiss any threats, but the Assad regime does not have the ability to seriously threaten our military. Any other retaliation they might seek is in line with threats that we face every day. Neither Assad nor his allies have any interest in escalation that would lead to his demise. And our ally, Israel, can defend itself with overwhelming force, as well as the unshakeable support of the United States of America.
Last weekend, I responded to a friend on Facebook who raised a similar point, saying that if - IF - Assad decided to retaliate directly against American assets, ships or personnel, the amount of time a direct US-Syria military conflict will last can be timed by an egg timer, which is why they won't retaliate directly.

Question 4: Let them fight it out; it's not our problem.
Many of you have asked a broader question: Why should we get involved at all in a place that's so complicated, and where -- as one person wrote to me -- “those who come after Assad may be enemies of human rights?”

It’s true that some of Assad’s opponents are extremists. But al Qaeda will only draw strength in a more chaotic Syria if people there see the world doing nothing to prevent innocent civilians from being gassed to death. The majority of the Syrian people -- and the Syrian opposition we work with -- just want to live in peace, with dignity and freedom. And the day after any military action, we would redouble our efforts to achieve a political solution that strengthens those who reject the forces of tyranny and extremism.
This is an important point. The Taliban and Al Queda in Afghanistan took an extremist foothold after the West abandoned the country in the aftermath of the Russian loss. Anti-American sentiments grew rigid in many parts of the world - and especially the middle east - because people there saw the United States unwilling to act in the face of human suffering and humanitarian disasters. In the wake of this abandonment, people can't be blamed for putting their lot with extremists who at least promise order.

Question 5: but try other things first!
Finally, many of you have asked: Why not leave this to other countries, or seek solutions short of force? As several people wrote to me, “We should not be the world’s policeman.”

I agree, and 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.
This is something the emotarians and the media won't tell you. For the last two years, this president has been trying to find a diplomatic solution, but until now, it had been to no end. A year and a half ago, the US closed its embassy in Damascus. Diplomatic efforts have been exerted, and all diplomatic efforts had been exhausted - that is, until a credible threat of military consequences began to force Russia to rein in its client.

And finally, the president righteously slammed into the posturing that is coming from both sides of the political stick:
And so, to my friends on the right, I ask you to reconcile your commitment to America’s military might with a failure to act when a cause is so plainly just. To my friends on the left, I ask you to reconcile your belief in freedom and dignity for all people with those images of children writhing in pain, and going still on a cold hospital floor. For sometimes resolutions and statements of condemnation are simply not enough.
Couldn't have said it any better myself.

The president's explanations - concise, reasoned, and truthful - speak volumes about a one-of-a-kind leader who truly trusts in an informed citizenry. But the fact that he had to book a prime time slot to do this speaks to how much the American media has been derelict in its duty to inform the public, the highest purpose of a free press. Not one of the explanations the president gave last night is new, but the majority of Americans were kept in the dark about them by the media's eagerness to referee a mudfight rather than fulfill their role the arbiter of the facts.

With the press playing its usual game of political winners and losers and issue-dumbness, the White House has launched a portal to keep Americans informed about the administration's response to Syria. Cut through the pontificating and keep up with it here, and the State Department's Syria page here.


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