The President last night made a remarkably brief and direct speech last night making the case for a use-of-force resolution in Congress that he probably won’t get, may not need, and put off indefinitely. As such, it represents less of an exhortation to the American people or to Congress to support action against Syria than another exercise is “keeping up the pressure” for Assad to turn over his chemical weapons to some international authority.
Getting people to support the credible threat of a military action they don’t support in order to avoid its necessity is a tricky exercise at best, and it’s hard to say this morning what impact Obama’s speech will have on public opinion. For what it was worth, it was well-wrought and well-delivered, and certainly defied the picture Republicans have been trying to paint of him as “weak” or “confused” in dealing with the crisis. But the truth is that the diplomatic progress that made Obama’s call for a war authorization semi-moot has now completely alienated the GOP rank-and-file and will soon alienate the GOP leaders who aren’t already in opposition. If, as Obama said last night, the U.S. military “doesn’t do pinpricks,” then the Republican Party doesn’t do diplomacy, which it regards as a betrayal of U.S. power and even sovereignty.
From a strategic point of view, Obama should probably take a three-step approach: give diplomacy a week or two (at least until the UN weapon inspectors’ final report is in); then if nothing’s happened, shift to a use-of-force resolution that’s contingent on the failure of diplomacy, like the Manchin-Heitkamp draft; and only then reach the point of no return when he either throws up his hands or decides to defy both Congress and public opinion.
When Obama ended the speech by saying the course of action he called for reflected the “humility” and “resolve” that made America “exceptional,” he was not, as some analysts thought, appealing to the conservative doctrine of “American exceptionalism,” but instead taunting conservatives he knows he’s lost. So now we’ll just have to see if diplomacy works. Even as the president seeks to maintain the threat of war, it is now just not very likely.