Skip to main content

Barack Obama's speech won't sell Americans on Syria

By Aaron David Miller, Special to CNN
September 11, 2013 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Aaron Miller: Speech could not sell skeptical Americans on need for action on Syria
  • He says speech couldn't convince war-weary citizens that U.S. interests at stake
  • He says Obama's handling of Syria issue has not inspired confidence
  • Miller: A strike would have to be broader than Obama describing, and Americans fear this

Editor's note: Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- President Barack Obama's speech to the American public Monday night was eloquent and forceful. But given the odds arrayed against him -- some of his own making -- the persuader in chief likely won't make the sale.

Indeed, it's likely that none of the other great communicators and explainers -- Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton -- could have either. And here's why:

Chico Marx was right

Impersonating Groucho in "Duck Soup," Chico makes a remark that sums up Obama's challenge: "Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?"

The American people are their own experts this time around on what constitutes a vital national interest for the United States and what they want done about it.

Aaron David Miller
Aaron David Miller

After two of the longest and most profitless wars in American history, the public has a more discriminating assessment of what's worth fighting for and what's not. And, deeply dismayed by the standard for victory -- when can we leave, not how do we win -- most Americans rightly see a U.S. military strike on Syria as an imperfect option that is likely either to be ineffective or to draw the U.S. into another country's civil war.

One speech could never overcome the skepticism and doubts left by a decade of two pointless wars. And this one didn't.

It's not that Americans are unmoved by the president's heartfelt descriptions of dead Syrian children gassed by, the administration says, President Bashar al-Assad's murderous forces; it's that their priorities lie elsewhere.

But it's America's broken house that's in need of repair, not someone else's. And no amount of false analogies to Munich and appeasement will sway them. They know what they see, and it's not compelling enough to justify the uncertainties of a military strike.

The president's words last night didn't allay those doubts.

Opinion: Obama's speech a model of persuasion

Obama's Syria policy is a Marx Brothers movie

An accidental breakthrough?
How will U.N. find Syria's weapons?
Syria debate: week in review, week 1

Over the past week, one got the feeling that every day another door opened on the Syria issue with yet another surprise. The twists and turns didn't help the administration's case for clarity and consistency, which is so critical to providing the background of a speech to the nation. Indeed, events of the past week made the president's task much harder.

First, after a buildup to one of the most widely telegraphed military actions in the history of warfare, the president surprised the nation by deferring military action while he sought an authorization to use force from Congress. That was followed by an off-the-cuff remark by Secretary of State John Kerry on how al-Assad could preempt a military attack by turning over all his chemicals weapons.

The next surprise was a Russian endorsement of Kerry's idea -- and then Syria jumping aboard the peace train. The result: On the eve of the president's speech -- presumably aimed at making the case for a military strike -- the momentum had shifted away from war as the United Nations, the French and the secretary-general all try to figure out how to make peace and take al-Assad's chemicals off line.

The American public -- already confused as to whether the strike would be "unbelievably small" (in John Kerry's words) or, in the president's words, more robust ("the U.S. military doesn't do pinpricks") -- could be forgiven if it was a tad bewildered.

Read the speech

Overselling the risks of not acting

Much of the president's speech dealt with the consequences of not acting militarily in the face of the largest single deployment of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein used them against the Kurds in 1988. There's no doubt that doing nothing would broaden al-Assad's margin to use these weapons again if he felt it necessary.

But we need to be clear: This regime is engaged in a fight to preserve itself and will do whatever is necessary to stay in power. A U.S. strike would have to be extremely punishing to deter al-Assad from using these weapons and extremely comprehensive in its scope to degrade al-Assad's capacity. The president can't make his case by playing down the severity of any U.S. response.

The other risks of inaction -- deterring Iran from nuclear weapons or suggesting that the U.S. is threatened by these weapons -- just don't add up and aren't compelling.

Indeed, should al-Assad be weakened or lose control, these chemical weapons might well fall into the hands of al Qaeda and other jihadist groups that could use them directly against the United States.

Opinion: Speech aims to keep heat on Syria

Our cardboard conception of leadership

Even under normal circumstances, a single presidential speech to persuade Americans to back a military strike would be a tough sell. Presidential speeches rarely move the needle much on an issue like this. We have this artificial conception of our president's capacity.

If only the president could make the case with powerful logic, he can indeed persuade. The only thing that's missing is leadership.

But that's really not the way it works. Presidents are more often prisoners of events. The great ones -- Abraham Lincoln, FDR -- are fortunate (if that's the right word) to have circumstances that allow them to do so. And they intuit and extract opportunities from those circumstances that allow them to lead.

Obama doesn't have these circumstances.

He faces a public that is deeply skeptical of attacking another Arab/Muslim country; a divided and skeptical Congress; and an international community that fears military action. And he confronts this environment with a military option that he himself doesn't really believe in either. There's no real sense of urgency or emergency, partly because the president has willfully downplayed that sense of crisis.

Obama seeks support for attacking Syria while pursuing diplomacy

Obama is an ambivalent warrior. He fashions himself the extricator in chief charged with getting America out of profitless conflicts, not getting them into new ones. And it shows.

Monday night's speech reflected a man who on one hand would like to be rescued by a diplomatic solution to a problem he himself knows can't be resolved by military force and on the other, one who realizes he has a very bad military option if he must go forward.

And as a consequence, what was hyped as a major speech really couldn't be, in large part because there was nothing to decide and no urgency to do so.

Congress isn't going to vote this week; the U.S. isn't going to war soon; and Vladimir Putin's diplomacy from Russia has yet to play itself out. Indeed, right now the president can't be the decider in chief because there's nothing to decide.

For now, Obama -- along with the rest of the country -- is stuck in limbo between a war he clearly doesn't want and diplomatic approach he knows faces long odds. And no presidential speech could free him or the country from that predicament.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Aaron David Miller

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0242 GMT (1042 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT