President Obama’s speech last night on the possible attack on Syria was couched in moral terms, basically saying that the last thing he wanted to do was send missiles flying into Damascus, but he believed that America and America alone had both the obligation and authority to do so. As such, he portrayed us as both reluctant — reminding us that he campaigned as the anti-war candidate in 2008 — but devastating: “America doesn’t do pinpricks.”
The whole speech became more a discussion of possibilities rather than necessities thanks to the news that was breaking all day: there might be an agreement brokered by Russia for Syria to get rid of its stockpile of chemical weapons and for Syria to sign on to the convention that banned such weapons. The diplomacy is still going on, and while we don’t yet have a celebratory signing ceremony planned on the White House lawn, things look a lot more hopeful than they did a week ago. And the fact that he delivered the speech from the East Room rather than the Oval Office was encouraging: presidents never deliver bad news from the East Room.
Congress heaved a huge sigh of relief. With the diplomacy underway, the hot potato the president handed them last week cooled off: the vote on the resolution has been postponed pending the outcome of the talks. Now they no longer have to put up or shut up. It also gave Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) the all-clear to finally say something about Syria — he’d been holding back because his instinctive rah-rah for war was being outweighed by his instinct for survival in his Senate race. The Tea Party is vehemently against the idea of an attack because The Black Guy is for it, and Mr. McConnell faces a primary challenge back home. Now he can be true to his pandering, and he unloaded on the president, going Rand Paul on him and sounding like the true toady to the nutsery that he has to be to stay alive politically.
At any rate, we have now gone from an imminent danger and imminent attack to a fall-back of letting diplomacy do its work. It could take weeks or even months to get the arrangements in place, and Assad could set up any number of roadblocks, real or contrived, before the weapons — which until yesterday he denied even having — are under international control and then destroyed. It reminds one of the Cuban missile crisis: the bad guys never really acknowledged that they were doing anything wrong, but they promised never to do it again in exchange for a face-saving climb-down from World War III. And President Obama’s reluctant warrior portrayal — don’t make me attack you — and turning the speech from a “we start bombing in five minutes” to a treatise on why we should be the moral compass of the world is, at the least, a hopeful sign. We can now talk about that rather than watch grainy Youtube footage of smoke rising from the landing site of a Cruise missile.