Thursday, September 12, 2013

Obama's confused, mendacious, and manipulative talking points

Unusually for me, I actually listened to President Obama's speech on Tuesday night. I was not impressed. He seemed to be stringing together a hodgepodge of confused and used talking points. Some consisted of bellicose threats left over from before the Russian diplomatic initiative threw him a lifeline; others revived the administration's orientation toward talks, not bombs, (at least U.S. bombs) that had previously passed for a Syria policy. None of it made much sense or seemed likely to convince anyone that we must make war in Syria. It was simply odd.

Obama did try to plant one new historical falsehood.

In World War II, the Nazis used gas to inflict the horror of the Holocaust.

True, the Nazis used heavy doses of the agricultural pesticide Zyklon B on helpless prisoners in their mass extermination camps; the United States had used non-lethal doses of the same chemical to "disinfect" Mexican laborers working in our fields in the 1930s. Neither usage falls under a meaningful definition of "warfare"; modern sensibilities would consider both crimes, I trust. The Nazi use of lethal gas in specially constructed, confined killing pens has nothing to do with a chemical attack using a completely different gas (sarin) -- widely dispersed -- on a Damascus suburb in the context of civil war.

The Prez insisted

… we know the Assad regime was responsible.

But where's his evidence? I'm inclined to believe him, but after being lied into war in Iraq and after being lied to about government spying under Obama (more evidence of NSA dissembling revealed today), he's going to have to produce evidence, not just tell us to trust him. How does he "know"? How do we "know"?

He argued

…it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons …

But then he made no case for what "national security interests" the Syrian civil war can threaten. Listening to him was more puzzling than convincing.

Atlantic magazine journalist James Fallows made a point that captures exactly the revulsion I felt listening to this speech.

… it really is time to stop basing appeals for international action on the "see the videos of children dying horribly" theme. This is a note that the president touched on briefly last night, and that has been the dominant element in presentations by Susan Rice and Samantha Power …

Stop it. You want to know about innocent children dying in horrible circumstances? Read John Hersey's Hiroshima. That book made clear, as the Syrian videos have, that death in warfare is terrible, and particularly heart-wrenching and unbearable to know about when it involves children. I have children whom I love as much as anyone anywhere ever has, and now a little grandson; if such a thing were possible, I would love him even more. Like most people in most places I don't need reminders of the special cruelty and heartbreak of any suffering inflicted on the young.

But as the Hiroshima comparison illustrates, to mention the suffering of children does not settle political, strategic, or even moral questions. You can argue that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were historical necessities and even "merciful" in some way, in averting later and much larger numbers of Japanese and American deaths during an invasion. You can argue the reverse. Either way, little children had their flesh roasted as they walked to school or happily played. Their suffering does not answer the "was Truman right?" or the "is deterrence moral?" questions. The suffering of people in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania 12 years ago today did not answer the "should we invade Iraq?" question. The Syria videos tell us that something horrible happened, not what we should do about it. 

Obama seems a smart and even a decent guy. He knows better. But right now, he's not doing better. Let's hope, for the sake of the people of Syria, the truly despicable Putin finds it in his interest to help Obama wriggle out of this one.

1 comment:

Rain Trueax said...

I don't know if he's lying so much as depending on others for facts and using them loosely as in gas in the Holocaust equated gas in the war which it didn't but it was how he meant it. To do a 15 minute talk (I watched also) on something so complex is foolish at the least but how long would Americans watch it? How complex are most willing to get it. He had one speech planned and then Russia changed the game (maybe); so he kept most of it and tacked on the new ending.

It all makes a case for a 6-year, one term presidency or having two presidents-- one good at foreign affairs and one at national. As it stands they try to do it all and fail at both. I doubt we'll get that change, but it may be too big a job for one man or woman. And frankly if anybody doesn't think Hillary would be as or more warlike than Obama, they haven't listened to her much.

I think Assad has as much reason to want to get those weapons gone as anybody if he didn't actually order it and someone in his regime did hoping it'd throw him out and get them in. Civil wars lead to a lot of nasty practices.

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