President Obama talked about Syria last night in a televised speech from the East Room.
  • AP Photo/Evan Vucci, Pool
  • President Obama talked about Syria last night in a televised speech from the East Room.

“White Houses don’t do this sort of thing, but the speech probably should have been cancelled, because it no longer served any purpose,” George Packer writes on the New Yorker blog today.

Addressing the nation from the East Room last night, President Obama methodically made his case for a military strike on Syria. The gruesome images from the August 21 gassing in Syria had shown the world the “terrible nature of chemical weapons.” If the U.S. doesn’t respond, Bashar al-Assad and others like him “will have no reason to think twice” about using such weapons, and it will become easier for terrorists to obtain them. We wouldn’t be heading into another war; we’d only be making “a targeted strike to achieve a clear objective.”

Then, having made his case for military action, the President said he was postponing asking Congress to authorize it.

This was like a teacher emphasizing the significance of an imminent test, and convincing students of the need for hours of study—and then announcing he was putting it off.

Obama had backed himself into this corner. The nation overwhelmingly opposes the strike he’d proposed. “The country won’t be persuaded,” Packer writes. “The vote is already lost.”

And now that Syria and Russia have given the President an out, he’s decided to take it. He explained last night that he’s delaying action to see if Syria will indeed surrender its chemical weapons to Russian and UN representatives.

Packer thinks the chance of missile strikes by the U.S. now is less than one in ten. That may seem like good news, but consider the problems with the “out” Obama has grabbed.

First, it will be extremely difficult for United Nations workers to find and destroy Assad’s chemical weapons, Packer observes. The weapons have reportedly been dispersed to more than 40 sites. Armed combatants in the civil war will be trying to seize them. If even a single UN adviser is killed, the UN will evacuate all of them, Packer says. And Assad has “every incentive to withhold some part of his arsenal in case of ultimate need” and to “delay and deceive.”

Second, even if this diplomatic initiative somehow ends the chemical threat, “Syria will be no closer to the fall of Assad or to his negotiated departure,” Packer notes. “The killing will go on. Death by gas might be taken off the table, but children and other human beings, by the thousands, will still be pulverized in indiscriminate shelling and burned to death by incendiary devices.”