Advancing a Free Society

Obama's Syria Address: Warrior President Seeks Warrior Precedent

Sunday, September 8, 2013

To get a sense of what President Obama is up againstTuesday night when he makes the case for a military strike against Syria:

(1) The timing – giving a nationwide address hours and days later than he’d like. If the purpose were to rally a war-weary public and change votes in Congress, Sunday or Mondaywould have made more sense. But that would have pitted the most powerful man in America against America’s most powerful cartel: the National Football League, which owns TV’s prime time on Sunday and Monday evenings.

(2) The unsubtle irony of a man who sought the presidency with the promise of ending wars, perhaps starting us down the road to yet another. Only, it’s not a war. In Mr. Obama’s words: “Any action we take would be limited, both in time and scope . . .” Mr. Obama wants to come across as a hawkish dove or a dovish hawk – sort of like a Yankees fan with a Boston accent.

(3) The backdrop. Should Mr. Obama give the big speech from the Oval Office, traditionally the home of epic presidential moments, he’ll be doing so in a setting that his former chief speechwriter believes is a lousy stage.

About that wordsmith: his name’s Jon Favreau and he left the Obama White House in May to strike it rich in Hollywood. Lately, he’s been attending White House meetings. So let’s assume he has a say in what the President says on Tuesday.

And exactly will that be – or, more to the point, what can he say that he already hasn’t said, and change what may be a serious setback to his last term in office?

Put yourself in the shoes of the White House rhetoric machine. For the past few days, fueled by copious amounts of Red Bull to Adderall to stay awake and Aaron Sorkin’s liberal fantasies to stay inspired, you’ve been searching for historical precedent – a past presidential means to justice Mr. Obama’s political end. Preferably, it’s a Democratic ex-president as you comrade in arms, as it were.

But here’s the problem: the past doesn’t make for good Syria prologue. Consider the words of these Democrats who rallied their country to arms:

Woodrow Wilson, War Message to Congress, 4/2/1917

“Our object now, as then, is to vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world as against selfish and autocratic power and to set up amongst the really free and self-governed peoples of the world such a concert of purpose and of action as will henceforth ensure the observance of those principles . . .We are at the beginning of an age in which it will be insisted that the same standards of conduct and of responsibility for wrong done shall be observed among nations and their governments that are observed among the individual citizens of civilized states.”

The disconnect: Syria is a civil war, not a global conflict pitting the Central Powers against the Triple Entete.

Franklin Roosevelt, Joint Address to Congress, 12/8/1941

I believe that I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us. Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger. With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph – so help us God.”

The disconnect: The commander-in-chief wasn’t seeking a first strike. The U.S. had been sucker-punched the previous day – by the time FDR gave his speech, Japanese forces had attacked Malaya, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Wake Island and Midway Island, in addition to the surprise air assault on Pearl Harbor.

Harry Truman, Address on Korea, 7/19/1950

“The prompt action of the United Nations to put down lawless aggression, and the prompt response to this action by free peoples all over the world, will stand as a landmark in mankind's long search for a rule of law among nations.

Problem: this process didn’t go through the UN, not does it include the participation of Great Britain, which committed 100,000 servicemen to the Japan-Korea theatre during the conflict.”

The disconnect: Truman committed U.S. forces to a combined United Nations military effort (the same Great Britain that voted down involvement in Syria committed 100,000 personnel to the Japan-Korea theater). Worth noting: the USSR was absent from the U.N. Security Council in 1950.

Lyndon Johnson, Message to Congress,  8/5/1964:

“The threat to the three nations of southeast Asia has long been clear. The North Vietnamese regime has constantly sought to take over South Vietnam and Laos. This Communist regime has violated the Geneva accords for Vietnam.”

The disconnect: While Mr. Obama can cite the international community’s objection to chemical weapons, does anyone believe he’d go back a decade and seek cover in the form of the Bush Doctrine? That, and conflation: In the same address, LBJ sold Vietnam as “not just a jungle war, but a struggle for freedom on every front of human activity.” Would Obama elevate another nation’s civil war that same exalted level?

Bill Clinton, Oval Office Address, 11/27/1995

Let me say at the outset America's role will not be about fighting a war. It will be about helping the people of Bosnia to secure their own peace agreement. Our mission will be limited, focused, and under the command of an American general. In fulfilling this mission, we will have the chance to help stop the killing of innocent civilians, especially children, and at the same time, to bring stability to central Europe, a region of the world that is vital to our national interests. It is the right thing to do.

The disconnect: It took Clinton less than a minute to say that he had no interest in fighting a war and didn’t want to drag America into a military quagmire – words Obama is certain to echo. As Obama likely will, Clinton justified his action via the great tradition of America as the world’s greatest champion of freedom. Worth noting: at the end of the address, Clinton cleverly gave the impression that even the Pope was on board with his decision.

In the end, the lazy choice for Mr. Obama is to go back to where it all started – his keynote at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, when he said he wasn’t opposes to all war, but rather “a dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.”

But sadly, because it might kill this White House’s progressive clique to admit that a conservative Republican president had it right, the president’s speechwriters may overlook the easiest words to plagiarize – what Ronald Reagan told the nation in October 1983, in the aftermath of the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut and why the U.S. was involved in Lebanon’s affairs:

“Let us meet our responsibilities. For longer than any of us can remember, the people of the Middle East have lived from war to war with no prospect for any other future. That dreadful cycle must be broken. With patience and firmness, we can help bring peace to that strifetorn region – and make our own lives more secure. Our role is to help the LebaneseSyrians put their country together, not to do it for them.”

Forget about imitation being the sincerest form of flattery. For this White House, channeling Reagan is the sensible way out of rhetorical trap of this president’s own making.

Follow Bill Whalen on Twitter: @hooverwhalen