Mark Mardell: Obama's Syria speech almost irrelevant

President Barack Obama at the White House (10 September 2013) By the time Mr Obama reached the podium for his long-awaited speech, events had rendered it largely irrelevent

"The US military does not do pinpricks." That was about the only good line in a speech by President Barack Obama that may not have won many converts.

He stood behind a podium rather than sitting at the desk in the Oval Office, and made a speech that was clear but almost entirely lacking in passion and devoid of new arguments.

Indeed, the first two-thirds seemed cut and pasted from earlier speeches.

The trouble was that while he made the clinical case for military action against Syria, we knew there was a "but" coming.

Had he still been calling for a vote in Congress in a few days' time and had he wanted the American people to pressure their politicians, he would have had to make a much stronger speech about the dangers of inaction.

As it was, Syria's acceptance of the Russian plan to give up their chemical weapons has changed everything.

He didn't express any cynicism about the idea but said it was an "encouraging sign". He had asked Congress to delay a vote, and said the US, Britain and France would work through the UN and talk to China and Russia.

They would wait for the UN inspectors to report. The military would stand ready to respond if diplomacy failed.

All this leaves more questions than answers.

We don't know how long Mr Obama will give diplomacy or what its failure would look like.

We don't know if the three Western nations will go ahead with a resolution backed up with force or go for something more modest.

We have no idea how UN inspectors could do their job in a country ravaged by civil war.

The President's speech was for a few days a hugely important date in the diary, but by the time he came to deliver it, events had rendered it almost an irrelevance.

The next key event is likely to be the meeting between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva on Thursday. The speeches that follow that meeting might actually tell us something.

Mark Mardell Article written by Mark Mardell Mark Mardell North America editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Nice gig, Mark - to be paid all that money to be simply critical, not constructive. The President was entirely correct in soliciting the wishes of the American people, through their elected representatives.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Human induced conflict can ONLY be resolved with effective dialogue and diplomacy.

    Clearly, given the mess of the situation, our leaders lack these essential peacemaking skills in abundance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Mardell's anti-Obama bias gets more tiresome by the day.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Shouldn't the US best friend rebels be pressured to give up their CW chem weps too, maybe the could also try diplomacy to represent their 'views' although it is alleged they are terrorist mercenaries plus US UK Jordan soldiers not real peeps

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    I'd just like to make one correction to Statistic's comment: "Watching Obamas speech was like watching an eloquently speaking hypocritical manipulative warmonger dictator trying to defend the indefensible" It was like watching an eloquently speaking hypocritical manipulative warmonger dictator with a Nobel Peace Prize given to him by a bunch of lame Europeans trying to defend the indefensible.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    It's difficult to see what kind of strike will "punish" Assad. So, you degrade some of his military assets but he can easily afford that. The most likely outcome of a strike will be unintended consequences which, by definition, cannot be predicted. Above all, it is difficult to see how any strike of any kind can help the long suffering Syrians.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Lets remember that Putin predicted a 'New Cold War' in 2007 and declared 'War has started" in August 2008 when he rolled tanks into Western Georgia.

    Russia are the past masters at spreading disinformation and have no compunction about abusing human rights. They have risen from the ashes and are more powerful than before. There lays our real enermy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    I understand you want more info but this is still developing. Those paying attention really didnt gain much, but a large amount of Americans were just updated. Now the fact that you dont back the decision blows my mind! We reached an agreement with Russia, thats huge everytime. Also, a dictatorship run country is giving up all of its Chemical weapons. That a win.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    I liked the comment by ScottNYC. Cannot agree more. This tone of tired, bored and ever slightly disappointed guru is (slighly) annoying and is not really revealing any deep insights.

    I have to admit that I like how the things turn out so far and I give President Obama a huge credit that he (so far) abstained from, at the very least, useless action.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    It looks like the intellectual kid in the front row has just been saved by the the bored kid in the back of the classroom.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Russia was sharp to pull out a not so serious answer from Kerry when he was asked is there any way to stop military strikes on Assad and the whole story seems to have changed. US had already prepared for strikes irrespective of votes supporting Obama. Making a speech after Assad agreeing to hand over weapons should have avoided as it is like making fool of yourself. He should be dynamic to events

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    The U.S. Violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention:

    (Journal of National Security Law and Policy)

  • Comment number 4.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Watching Obamas speech was like watching an eloquently speaking hypocritical manipulative warmonger dictator trying to defend the indefensible

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    I find Obama's decision to let the Russians have a try refreshing. Perhaps the former superpower can at least bring to heal its client state, something that the Chinese have found rather hard to do with their step-child, North Korea. This also frees the UK and France to find some other nation that might actually fear their toothless bite - perhaps a failed ex-colony in Africa.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    It seems Mark Mardell wants nothing short of a rather large bombing campaign, to begin yesterday preferably. That way he can switch the narrative from the "bumbling impotent superpower" to the "Yankee Doodle killing machine." You lose either way with this guy.


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