Obama’s Exceptionally Weird Speech on Syria

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

“Oh, this will be easy,” I said to myself. “This speech is short!” Boy, was I wrong. I’ve always felt that exegesis saves, but now I’m experiencing a crisis of faith. Can there be bullshit so deeply impacted that it’s proof against color coding? We’ll see. But first, here’s why I thought the speech was weird:

1. The intricate verbal patterning that we’ve come to expect from Obama (Hamilton Project; inaugural; presser) isn’t present. Even at the presser, speaking extemporaneosly, Obama at least nailed his talking points.

2. The text contains several simple and obvious grammatical errors (which must have been in the text. The errors cannot be caused by improvisation, since Obama uses a Teleprompter).

3. The speech is not well-structured. Although I divided the speech into parts retroactively, transitions between parts were not signalled for listeners in any way. Some listeners were confused, and no wonder.

4. The language is slack, flaccid, filled with dead metaphors, unclear referents, and national security jargon.

From the outside, it’s impossible to know whether all these quality defects were caused by time pressure, the larger exhaustion of the American imperial project, or even Obama, Nuke LaLoosh-like, shaking off the signs and writing his own pitch. Unlikely though that may seem.

As a result, there’s far less color-coding than usual — although I could have coded the entire speech in bullshit brown and liar’s red, that would have been just a stunt. Instead, I went through the speech in detail and peppered it with note after note, as if I were a policy debater again looking for points of weakness; and there are a rather lot of notes.

However, there is one particular rhetorical trick that Obama uses several times: Synecdoche (part for whole), and the way Obama uses it is extremely deceptive, almost like sleight of hand. He’ll focus your attention on a part that represents a whole; but by focusing on the part, you can’t focus on the whole. For example (see note 3), Obama says he wants to talk about “Syria.” But Syria is but one part of a whole Syrian crisis, which includes many other players like Russia, Iran, Turkey, and so on. But Obama doesn’t want to talk about all those players, since that would entail talking about the risk of a wider war, and so he says “Syria” in place of “Syrian Crisis.” He uses this device a number of times in the speech.

So, readers, despite the fact that this post is more than a little down in the weeds, I hope you find if fun and useful. I’m not a foreign policy wonk, so your corrections and additions will be very welcome.

Oh, and the contrasts between Obama’s speech, and speeches that Maggie Thatcher, Sir Edward Grey, and FDR gave in similar circumstances are interesting, and not in Obama’s favor.

* * *



Secular religion

A mish-mash of phrases from the Framers, Lincoln and MLK echoes, and so forth


Bathos is an abrupt transition in style from the exalted to the commonplace

Neo-liberal catchphrase

“Free market,” “innovation,” “hard choices” etc.


“Our most vulnerable citizens”

Bipartisan shibboleth

“The troops,” for example

Dead metaphors/cliche

“Ring the changes on,” “take up the cudgel for,” “toe the line,” “ride roughshod over,” etc. (Orwell)

Sheer nonsense

Word salad

Falsehood or truthiness

A terminological inexactitude


Lawyerly parsing and weasel wording


“Ladies and gentleman,” and so forth.

I’ve divided the speech into parts for convenience, but the parts are not there in the original. To the transcript!

* * *

Part I: The case for war.

OBAMA: My fellow Americans,1tonight I want to talk to you2about Syria3 — why it matters, and where we go from here.4

  1. Nixon: “My Fellow Americans: I come before you tonight as a candidate for the Vice Presidency and as a man whose honesty and integrity have been questioned.” JFK: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Gerald Ford: “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.” LBJ: “Good evening, my fellow Americans: Tonight I want to speak to you of peace in Vietnam and Southeast Asia.” Reagan: “My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you I just signed legislation which outlaws Russia forever. The bombing begins in five minutes.”

  2. “Talk to you” signals extreme informality. Note that Obama does not use division (“clarifying by describing a whole and its constituent parts”) or eutrepismus (“numbering and ordering the parts under consideration”). Here’s Maggie Thatcher, faced with a similar challenge of justifying war while diplomacy continues, on the Falkland Islands:

THATCHER [division] Our strategy has been based on a combination of diplomatic, military and economic pressures and I should like to deal with each of these in turn. [Eutrepismus] First of all, we seek a peaceful solution by …

In contrast to Thatcher, Obama’s lack of signposting may have contributed to the sense of confusion many listeners felt; “Obama’s speech seemed to be a patchwork of messages.” A classic technique of division, in the vernacular: “Tell them what you are going to tell them; tell them; tell them what you have told them.” Obama didn’t do the first, or the third. His speech seemed like a patchwork because it was. Overall, this speech exhibits aschematiston: The use of plain, unadorned or unornamented language (“notable for its conversational tone”), which some consider a vice. We can’t know whether this was a consequence of time pressure in a rapidly evolving situation, an executive decision by Obama, or a choice by his speechwriting staff.. The intricate verbal and rhetorical patterning of Obama’s earlier speeches is gone, along with Obama’s favorite speechwriter, Jon Favreau, who left the White House for Hollywood. It’s almost impossible to imagine, but could Obama have decided to write his own speech? With this result?

  1. Synecodoche: A whole is represented by naming one of its parts (“wheels,” for a car). By “Syria,” Obama means “The Syrian crisis,” which includes Syria, Russia, Israel, Iran, Turkey, Hizbollah, the Kurds, and “the Syrian opposition,” to speak only of states and non-state actors. Synecdoche, by throwing light on one part of a whole, obscures the others; it is, as we shall see, is the key rhetorical figure of the speech. Obama’s use of synecdoche is deceptive: The risks, as in (say) 1914, come from interactions between players, not from Syria alone. Obama, throwing light on Syria alone, throws this complexity into shadow.

  2. Alliteration: Repetition of the same letter or sound within nearby words. For example, the single phrase “why it matters, and where we go from here” contains in little the purpose of the speech: Speaker and listener (“we”) understanding the strategery (“why”) behind intervening (“we go”) in a particular place (“where”), and the sound reinforces the sense.

OBAMA: Over the past two years, what began as a series of peaceful protests against the repressive regime of Bashar al-Assad has turned into a brutal civil war. Over 100,000 people have been killed. Millions have fled the country. In that time, America has worked with allies to provide humanitarian support, to help the moderate opposition,5 and to shape a political settlement.6 But I have resisted calls for military action,7 because we cannot resolve someone else’s civil war through force, particularly after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.8

  1. Maybe when Obama finds the “moderate opposition,” I’ll get my pony. Some say the Free Syrian Army are moderates, or at least secular, but I’m not sure what the baseline for “moderate” is.

  2. Translation: Regime change.

  3. That is, overt military action. Obama recently put in 50 CIA-trained paramilitaries. There may have been other actions before that, but of course we can’t know, since the administration conducts secret wars under secret law.

  4. Ambiguous (a vice). Pivoting on the equivocal weasel word “particularly,” Obama is unclear whether we cannot resolve civil wars ever, or whether our exhausted, demoralized, and suicidal military can’t resolve civil wars at the moment. If the latter, it’s not clear how much deterrent power the administration really has; paramilitaries, mercs, and drones only take one so far.

OBAMA: The situation profoundly changed, though, on August 21st, when Assad’s government9 gassed to death over a thousand people, including hundreds of children.10 The images from this massacre11 are sickening: Men, women, children lying12 in rows, killed by poison gas. Others foaming at the mouth, gasping for breath. A father clutching his dead children, imploring them to get up and walk.12 On that terrible night, the world saw in gruesome detail the terrible nature of chemical weapons, and why the overwhelming majority of humanity has declared13 them off-limits — a crime against humanity,14 and a violation of the laws of war.15

  1. Not proven. Theories include: (a) Assad did it (oddly, with UN inspectors already on his territory); (b) the rebels did it (cui bono); (c) Assad’s army did it, but there was a breakdown in the chain of command.

  2. When they say it’s “for the kids,” it’s never “for the kids.”

  3. And not these massacres.

  4. Parallelism and a congeries (“piling up words of differing meaning but for a similar emotional effect”) of powerful verbs create pathos: “Lying… foaming… gasping… clutching… imploring”; an effective – or potentially effective, since many rhetorical effects depend on the ethos of the speaker — use of descriptio: A vivid, lively description of the consequences of an act, in this case, a gas attack. (If this seems cold to you, consider that speechwriter was just as cold.)

  5. “Humanity” doesn’t “declare” anything; states and international institutions do.

  6. Like torture.

  7. Which would explain why we helped Saddam gas Iran. And used depleted uranium shells and white phosphorus in Iraq. Also too, Agent Orange.

OBAMA: This was not always the case. In World War I, American GIs were among the many thousands killed by deadly gas in the trenches of Europe. In World War II, the Nazis used gas to inflict the horror of the Holocaust.16 Because these weapons can kill on a mass scale, with no distinction between soldier and infant,17 the civilized world has spent a century working to ban them.18 And in 1997, the United States Senate overwhelmingly approved an international agreement prohibiting the use of chemical weapons, now joined by 189 governments that represent 98 percent of humanity.

  1. A nod to AIPAC.

  2. A List Of Children Killed By Drone Strikes In Pakistan and Yemen.

  3. All these strictures apply to nuclear weapons; say, Israel’s. Perhaps the real reason states like the United States regard gas with such horror is that it’s relatively easy to make; even a third rank state like Syria can have a deterrent, of sorts.

OBAMA: On August 21st, these basic rules19 were violated, along with our sense of common humanity. No one disputes that chemical weapons were used20 in Syria. The world saw thousands of videos, cell phone pictures, and social media accounts21 from the attack, and humanitarian organizations told stories of hospitals packed with people who had symptoms of poison gas.

  1. Obama must weasel with “rules,” and not “treaties” or “international law,” because Syria, at the time of the speech, was not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention.

  2. Note passive lack of agency; “were used.” Odd, since above Obama insisted the Syrian government was responsible.

  3. Note Obama doesn’t say how these accounts were vetted. Surely we’re not going to war on the basis that somebody somewhere tweeted something?

OBAMA: Moreover, we know22 the Assad regime23 was responsible. In the days leading up to August 21st, we know that Assad’s chemical weapons personnel prepared for an attack near an area where they mix sarin gas.24 They distributed gasmasks to their troops. Then they fired rockets from a regime-controlled area into 1125 neighborhoods that the regime has been trying to wipe clear of opposition forces. Shortly after those rockets landed, the gas spread, and hospitals filled with the dying and the wounded.26 We know senior figures in Assad’s military machine reviewed the results of the attack, and the regime increased their shelling of the same neighborhoods in the days that followed.27 We’ve also studied samples of blood and hair from people at the site that tested positive for sarin.28

  1. Anaphora: Repetition of the same word or group of words at the beginning of successive clauses, sentences, or lines (Obama’s favorite rhetorical figure). “We know…. We know. … We know. … We’ve also studied.” But who is “we,” and how do “we” “know”? Note that Obama gives sourcing for none of what “we” “know,” and the central document justifying Syrian war comes from the White House, not the intelligence community. Shades of Dick Cheney, and the Downing Street Memo (“the facts and the intelligence were fixed around the policy”).

  2. Anything you call a “regime,” you want to change. A regime that you don’t want to change is called a “staunch ally.”

  3. Verification of Obama’s timeline must wait for the forthcoming UN report, for which the UN has outsourced the technical work to a scandal-played Swedish arms dealer with Saudi connections. I suppose, at some point, somebody should read the Russian report as well.

  4. “11” seems pointlessly specific. Are we sure the number isn’t 10 or 12?

  5. The Médecins sans Frontières report.

  6. Maybe. There seems to be rather a lot of shelling going on, though.

  7. Evidence that has not been released, which, if it were clinching, it would have been.

OBAMA: When dictators commit atrocities, they depend upon the world to look the other way until those horrifying pictures fade from memory. But these things happened. The facts cannot be denied. The question now is what the United States of America, and the international community, is29 prepared to do about it. Because what happened to those people — to those children30— is not only a violation of international law,31 it’s also a danger to our security.

  1. Subject-verb agreement: Should be “are” not “is.”

  2. As above. When they say it’s about the children …

  3. Above, it was “rule.” Now, it is a “law.”

OBAMA: Let me explain why.32 If we fail to act, the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons.33 As the ban against these weapons erodes, other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas, and using them.34 Over time, our troops would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield.35 And it could be easier36 for terrorist organizations to obtain these weapons, and to use them to attack civilians.

  1. Shift from appeal to pathos, to appeal to logos.

  2. Surely there are other reasons; for example, Russian pressure.

  3. Grammatical error; should “using it” not “using them” (“gas” is singular). Hasty drafting? Obama stressed?

  4. The “prospect of chemical warfare” by others. In fact, Agent Orange and depleted uranium shells are “friendly fire” from the chemical warfare standpoint.

  5. How many easier than grabbing them from stockpiles?

OBAMA: If fighting spills beyond Syria’s borders, these weapons could threaten allies like Turkey, Jordan, and Israel.33 And a failure to stand against the use of chemical weapons would weaken prohibitions against other weapons of mass destruction, and embolden Assad’s ally, Iran — which must decide whether to ignore international law by building a nuclear weapon,34 or to take a more peaceful path.

  1. “Fighting spills.” Note lack of agency. Why would it “spill”?

  2. That Iran is ignoring, or would ignore, international law is a matter of dispute.

OBAMA: This is not a world we should accept. This is what’s at stake. And that35 is why, after careful deliberation, I determined that it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike.36 The purpose of this strike would be to deter Assad from using chemical weapons, to degrade his regime’s ability to use them, and to make clear to the world that we will not tolerate their use.

  1. Anaphora: “This… This… That….”

  2. “Targeted” as opposed to… What?

Part II: The pivot to diplomacy

OBAMA: That’s my judgment as Commander-in-Chief. But I’m also the President of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy. So even though I possess the authority to order military strikes,37 I believed it was right,38 in the absence of a direct or imminent39 threat to our security, to take this debate to Congress. I believe our democracy is stronger when the President acts with the support of Congress. And I believe that America acts more effectively abroad when we stand together.

  1. As in Libya, for “possess” read “assert.” On constitutional democracy, see here.

  2. Past tense? “Believed it was right”? Odd grammatical choice.

  3. Since successive administrations have stretched the word “imminent” beyond all meaning, Obama really weakens his own case by using it here.

OBAMA: This is especially true after a decade that put more and more war-making power in the hands of the President, and more and more burdens on the shoulders of our troops, while sidelining the people’s representatives from the critical decisions about when we use force.40

  1. Outrageous chutzpah, especially when Obama claims, one paragraph above, that “I possess the authority to order military strikes.”

OBAMA: Now, I know that after the terrible toll of Iraq and Afghanistan, the idea of any military action, no matter how limited, is not going to be popular. After all, I’ve spent four and a half years working to end wars, not to start them.41 Our troops are out of Iraq. Our troops are coming home from Afghanistan. And I know Americans want all of us in Washington — especially me42 — to concentrate on the task of building our nation here at home: putting people back to work, educating our kids, growing our middle class.

  1. Yet more outrageous chutzpah; Libya; drones, drones, drones. We’ve created free fire zones covering tens of thousands of square miles where death can come from the sky at random. How is this “working to end war?”

  2. The ol’ ego mego.

OBAMA: It’s no wonder, then, that you’re asking hard questions.43 So let me answer some of the most important questions that I’ve heard from members of Congress, and that I’ve read in letters that you’ve sent to me.

  1. Apostrophe: Turning one’s speech from one audience to another. Obama begins informally (see note 2) but in his justification for war (Part I), he does not directly address “you” (the America people, and not members of the national security and political classes). Now, in Part II, he does.

OBAMA: First, many of you have asked, won’t this put us on a slippery slope to another war? One man wrote to me that we are “still recovering from our involvement in Iraq.” A veteran put it more bluntly: “This nation is sick and tired of war.”

OBAMA: My answer is simple: I will not put American boots on the ground43 in Syria. I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan. I will not pursue a prolonged air campaign like Libya or Kosovo. This would be a targeted strike to achieve a clear objective: deterring the use of chemical weapons, and degrading Assad’s capabilities.

  1. A double synecdoche (see note 3). The part “boots on the ground” stands for the whole: Troops. But the part, troops, also stands for the whole, military force. So Obama’s synecdoche is doubly deceptive: First, it’s perfectly possible to “put us on a slippery slope to another war” with no “boots” on “the ground.” Ask Admiral Yamamoto. Or Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Or whoever organized the incident in the Tonkin Gulf. Second, it’s perfectly possible to start a war with no military at all; that’s what covert operations and mercenaries are for. Ask Alfred Naujocks. In each case, if we look at the part that Obama selects to represent the whole, we might accept his claim of peace; but if we look at other parts of the same whole, we will see the possibility of war.

OBAMA: Others have asked whether it’s worth acting if we don’t take out44 Assad. As some members of Congress have said, there’s no point45in simply doing a “pinprick” strike46 in Syria.

  1. That is, kill or assassinate, in this case a head of state.

  2. There’s “no point” to a “pinprick,” then? Literally, these two dead metaphors contradict each other: A pin with no point could not prick. Freud, no doubt, would have a field day with this.

  3. A second double synecdoche. The part, the “pinprick” (“the pointy end”) stands for the whole, the strike. The strike, a part, stands for the whole, a war. Again, we see deception. First, although Obama wants us to focus on the part, the “pinprick,” but there’s no such thing as a “pinprick” strike (which seems to have replaced “surgical strike”). Strikes are not always accurate, and there is always “collateral damage.” Ask the Chinese embassy in Serbia. Second, Obama wants us to focus on the part, the strike, as opposed to the war. But a strike is an act of war!

OBAMA: Let me make something clear47: The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.48 Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation49 can deliver. I don’t think we should remove another dictator with force50 — we learned from Iraq that doing so makes us responsible for all that comes next. But a targeted strike can make Assad, or any other dictator51, think twice before using chemical weapons.51

  1. One of Obama’s verbal tics.

  2. False bravado – “doesn’t do”; you can almost hear the fist pounding the table – but about a capability the military doesn’t have? One of the many weird tone problems in this speech.

  3. Really? Why not France?

  4. Note the equivocation of “we”; if others – say, the opposition – could do the job for us, so “we” could avoid responsibility, would that be OK with Obama? I think it would. And if covert operatives, a plausibly deniable “we,” could do the job? Same answer.

  5. Who does Obama have in mind?

  6. I’m trying, and failing, to think of an example where this worked, at least when a single nation was acting unilaterally. And how do the strikes work, exactly? We can’t hit the chemical weapons directly, since that spreads poison everywhere. So do we try to hit chemical weapons units alone? If the Syrians are dispersing them – reminiscent of the neo-con claim that Saddam trucked his WMDs to Syria, but now revived in the right wing fever swamp – doesn’t that make it more likely we’ll kill civilians? And if we “target” Assad’s forces generally, not chemical weapons as such, isn’t that simply a way of shifting the balance of forces to the opposition, meaning regime change, which Obama has claimed he doesn’t want? What could go wrong?

    [H]ands up which of our jolly statesmen know what happened last time the Americans took on the Syrian government army? I bet they can’t remember. Well it happened in Lebanon when the US Air Force decided to bomb Syrian missiles in the Bekaa Valley on 4 December 1983. I recall this very well because I was here in Lebanon. An American A-6 fighter bomber was hit by a Syrian Strela missile – Russian made, naturally – and crash-landed in the Bekaa; its pilot, Mark Lange, was killed, its co-pilot, Robert Goodman, taken prisoner and freighted off to jail in Damascus. Jesse Jackson had to travel to Syria to get him back after almost a month amid many clichés about “ending the cycle of violence”. Another American plane – this time an A-7 – was also hit by Syrian fire but the pilot managed to eject over the Mediterranean where he was plucked from the water by a Lebanese fishing boat. His plane was also destroyed.

    Of course, Tomahawks don’t have pilots. Nor do drones. But still.

OBAMA: Other questions involve the dangers of retaliation. We don’t dismiss any threats, but the Assad regime does not have the ability to seriously threaten our military.53 Any other retaliation they might seek is in line with threats that we face every day. Neither Assad nor his allies have any interest in escalationthat would lead to his demise.54 And our ally, Israel, can defend itself with overwhelming force, as well as the unshakeable support of the United States of America.

  1. More chutzpah. If this were really true, Obama could put boots on the ground.

  2. So we don’t want to overthrow Assad because then we’d be responsible, but if he retaliates, we will overthrow him, and be responsible after all? So it’s not worth a second Iraq to save all those children and punish violations of the laws of war, but it is worth a second Iraq if Assad plays tit for tat? WTF? Also too, no blowback ever!

OBAMA: Many of you have asked a broader question: Why should we get involved at all in a place that’s so complicated, and where — as one person wrote to me — “those who come after Assad may be enemies of human rights?”

It’s true that some of Assad’s opponents are extremists.55 But al Qaeda56 will only draw strength in a more chaotic Syria if people there see the world doing nothing to prevent innocent civilians from being gassed to death. The majority of the Syrian people — and the Syrian opposition we work with57 — just want to live in peace, with dignity and freedom.57 And the day after any military action, we would redouble our efforts58 to achieve a political solution that strengthens those who reject the forces of tyranny and extremism.59

  1. Does anybody know what an “extremist” is? Is it the same as a “terrorist”?

  2. Arguably, we’ve funded them.

  3. That provisional government of Syrian exiles, interviews on all the majors from their offices in London… Oh, wait. Can’t anybody here play this game? Can’t these clowns even produce a Chalabi? IIRC, Obama actually did recognize some opposition group or other as the respresentatives of the Syrian people, but they seem to have gone where the woodbine twineth.

  4. That would be “redouble our hitherto entirely unsuccessful efforts.”

  5. This is crazy pants, nutso, demented. Who would believe this? Monday we slap you around because you’ve been bad, and Tuesday it’s like Monday never happened? I bet that doesn’t work with Malia and Sasha – especially if they think they’re in the right – so why would it work with Assad?

OBAMA: Finally, many of you have asked: Why not leave this to other countries, or seek solutions short of force? As several people wrote to me, “We should not be the world’s policeman.”

OBAMA: I agree, and I have a deeply held preference for peaceful solutions.60 Over the last two years, my administration has tried diplomacy and sanctions, warning and negotiations — but chemical weapons were still used by the Assad regime.61

  1. Like drones, Libya, covert operations, and so forth.

  2. Maybe. Maybe not. The UN report may tell us. Or may not.

III. The diplomatic pause

OBAMA: However, over the last few days, we’ve seen some encouraging signs. In part because of the credible threat of U.S. military action, as well as constructive talks that I had with President Putin, the Russian government has indicated a willingness to join with the international community in pushing Assad to give up his chemical weapons.62 The Assad regime has now admitted63 that it has these weapons, and even said they’d join the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits their use.

  1. Many disagree with this self-serving account timeline.

  2. They never denied it.

OBAMA: It’s too early to tell whether this offer will succeed, and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments. But this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force, particularly because Russia is one of Assad’s strongest allies.

OBAMA: I have, therefore, asked the leaders of Congress to postpone a vote to authorize the use of force while we pursue this diplomatic path. I’m sending Secretary of State John Kerry to meet his Russian counterpart on Thursday, and I will continue my own discussions with President Putin. I’ve spoken to the leaders of two of our closest allies, France and the United Kingdom, and we will work together in consultation with Russia and China to put forward a resolution at the U.N. Security Council requiring Assad to give up his chemical weapons, and to ultimately destroy them under international control. We’ll also give U.N. inspectors the opportunity to report their findings about what happened on August 21st. And we will continue to rally supportfrom allies from Europe to the Americas — from Asia to the Middle East64— who agree on the need for action.

  1. Allies who don’t want to be named.

OBAMA: Meanwhile, I’ve ordered our military to maintain their current posture to keep the pressure on Assad, and to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails. And tonight, I give thanks again to our military and their families for their incredible strength and sacrifices.

My fellow Americans65, for nearly seven decades, the United States has been the anchor of global security. This has meant doing more than forging international agreements — it has meant enforcing them. The burdens of leadership are often heavy, but the world is a better place because we have borne them. 66

  1. Peroratio: The conclusion, conventionally employing appeals through pathos, and often including a summing up. Obama signals the end by returning to the beginning: “My fellow Americans.”

  2. Note the exhausted flaccidity of the language: Full of dead metaphors that contradict each other. The United States is an “anchor” that “forges.” Agreements are “forged” but also “enforced.” And what on earth does “a better place” mean? Better for whom and why? Who could be persuaded by this who had not already been persuaded? (Contrast the vigor and concision of Putin’s recent Op-Ed in the Times!)

OBAMA: And so, to my friends on the right67, I ask you to reconcile your commitment to America’s military might with a failure to act when a cause is so plainly just.68 To my friends on the left, I ask you to reconcile your belief in freedom and dignity for all people with those images of children writhing in pain, and going still on a cold hospital floor.69 For sometimes resolutions and statements of condemnation70 are simply not enough.

  1. Parallelism: Similarity of structure in a pair or series of related words, phrases, or clauses. “[T]o my friends on the right…. To my friends on the left”; “… reconcile … reconcile.” (Oddly, or not, Obama characterizes the right as having commitments, but the left, beliefs.)

  2. Ron Paul to Warmongers: Leave Syria Alone! Ron Paul’s not on the right? Did I not get the memo?

  3. A List Of Children Killed By Drone Strikes In Pakistan and Yemen. PolicyMIC not on the left? Did I not get the memo?

  4. Egypt.

OBAMA: Indeed, I’d ask every member of Congress, and those of you watching at home tonight, to view those videos of the attack, and then ask: What kind of world will we live in if the United States of America sees a dictator brazenly violate international law with poison gas, and we choose to look the other way?71

  1. interrogatio (rhetorical question): A rhetorical question affirms or denies a point strongly by asking it as a question. Example: Why are you so stupid? Interrogatio is a question that uses a question to confirm or reinforce the argument one has just made. However, unlike “Why are you so stupid?”, Obama’s question is poor. The answer to “What kind of world” is, doubtless, “a bad one.” (Obama also uses “this is not a world we should accept” as a reason for war.) But that’s a rather vague reason of state. Contrast Sir Edward Grey’s use of interrogatio in (successfully) justifying the German invasion of Belguim as a casus belli for World War I:

    If France is beaten in a struggle of life and death, beaten to her knees, loses her position as a great Power, becomes subordinate to the will and power of one greater than herself… and if Belgium fell under the same dominating influence, and then Holland, and then Denmark, then would not Mr. Gladstone’s words come true, that just opposite to us there would be a common interest against the unmeasured aggrandisement of any Power?

OBAMA: Franklin Roosevelt once said, “Our national determination to keep free of foreign wars and foreign entanglements cannot prevent us from feeling deep concern when ideals and principles that we have cherished are challenged.”72 Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria, along with our leadership of a world where we seek to ensure that the worst weapons73 will never be used.

  1. Since when was deep concern a casus belli? Contrast Obama’s mush with the vigor and clarity of FDR’s “infamy” speech:

  2. Japan has, therefore, undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation. … I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December seventh, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.”

73. Who said gas was the “worst” weapon?

OBAMA: America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run,74 I believe we should act. That’s75 what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional.76 With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that77 essential truth.

  1. When they say it’s about the children…

  2. Unclear referent. What is “that”? Acting when the risks are low and the effort is modest? Acting for children when the risks are low and the effort is modest? WTF?

  3. American exceptionalism. Obama didn’t go there. No, he dinnit. Nevertheless, if you’re a liberal interventionist, the phrase will make you “a little straighter in [your] seat,” which I suppose is much the same as a tingle down your leg. Canny of Obama to put this last. After Putin took notice of it, a flamewar erupted online. How. Dare. He. And so forth.

  4. What?

Thank you. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America.

* * *

Some commenters feel that Obama’s tasking for this speech was just too complex: Justifying a war, but advocating for diplomacy. I disagree: Part of statecraft is being able to walk and chew gum at the same time, after all. Maggie Thatcher had the same task: diplomatic negotiations were continuing while a task force rushed to the Falklands, even if Thatcher pretty clearly wanted the mission to fail. Others feel that the speech was a sort of Frankenstein’s monster, stitched together from parts that never matched because Cameron! Because Putin! Because Assad on Charlie Rose! I disagree: The White House speechwriting team is supposed to be a crack operation, and hiding the seams in what they’ve sewn together is something they should be able to do.

I put the failings of this speech down to larger failings: The wheels are coming off America’s imperial project. First, because what kind of imperial power can’t put “boots on the ground”? That’s like the Brits saying “We don’t got the ships” (and Thatcher had barely enough). Second, because the American people are just plain tired of endless war, and why shouldn’t they be? Enough is enough. Obama’s speech, in every way except explicitly, captures their exhaustion.

NOTE I should say that I don’t focus on the nuts and bolts of rhetoric for my health or for fun, though for me it is fun. What I hope is that there are readers — you, readers — out there who want to master the art of persuasion, and just as (I would argue) you’ve got to learn scales and chords to play, so you have to learn the art of rhetoric to persuade. After all, that certainly as a necessary, even if not sufficient, part of the successes that Grey, FDR, Thatcher, and Obama have had in life. Eh?

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. David Lentini

    Loved the analysis and commentary. Every high school speech and debate program should use your work as examples of how rhetoricial devices are used in the real world. A couple of thoughts of my own on the conclusion:

    1. It recently struck me how Obama & Co., many of whom are pro-Iraq invasion neo-cons, keep hammering on the grisly descriptions from the gas attack, as if they are still trying to justify their disasterous crying wolf back in 2003. No one is challenging the descriptions and conclusion that some sort of chemical agent was used on civilians. The real opposition is over the lack of proof it was Assad, the lack of a cohesive strategy, the lack of confidence a “punishment” will do anything useful, and a lack of legal authority for Obama to act.

    Granted, this looks like the old lawyer’s adage that when you can’t pound the law, and you can’t pound the fact, you pound the table. But I still wonder if there isn’t a desire to use this as a “see we really were right all along” argument by the neo-cons over Iraq, the way they tried to argue that the so-called Arab Spring was a results of the fall of Saddam.

    2. I disagree that America has had an “imperial project”. Instead, our foreign policy has been co-opted by various interests, governments, and groups, who want to use our Cold War-era military for their own purposes. In other words, “America” gets nothing out of these adventures other than the burden of paying for them with taxes and blood. And America certainly doesn’t get any control over the foreign lands we invade and (sort of) occupy. The real beneficiaries are the thrid parties who foment these adventures and the corporations who then reap the profits. Here is a great example of Sheldon Wolin’s “inverted totalitarianism” at work.

    1. Banger

      The imperial project may appear to be something accidental but it’s not. The imperial project has been in the back of the minds of Western man pretty much since the fall or Western part of the Roman Empire. Many in history have tried to revive it and the U.S. stated in words and in deeds its desire to mimic Rome. Take a look at the architecture (and architecture is art and it does mean something) of official Washington. America has always been an Empire first in North America and slowly in other parts of the world. Reagan’s notion of the “city on a hill” is not his invention or his vision. American leaders have seen America as the key country in the world for several generations at least since Wilson. In 1941 Henry Luce wrote “The American Century” a kind of vision that we have lived out and revived with “Project for a New American Century” all of this in speeches in attitudes and in the ideology of American Exceptionalism that dominates and has dominated both the left and the right. So it isn’t only about greedy capitalists.

      Do the American people benefit from Empire? I say yes they do and geopolitics shows the way. The United States military adventures are now concentrated in the Middle East because that is where power is. High quality oil that much of the world depends on (and the U.S. wants the world to continue to depend on it) is in that region. The fact the U.S. has sought to conquer that region by creating client states and destroying those that seek an independent path means that the U.S. controls that oil. And because it controls that oil it can dictate how the world will arrange itself. If you’ve ever wondered why the Euro leadership class falls over itself to obye whatever Washington dictates it is because, since the Iraq invasion (remember when they were skeptical of U.S. military involvement?) they know who controls the oil and therefore the world economy. That is why all the budget worries are absurd. The dollar is invulnerable because it is the oil currency and the U.S. has told countries holding dollar reserves that if they attack the dollar it will be seen as an act of war and, of course, oil shipments may be interrupted. And why would any country want to tweak the nose of the United States? Trade depends on the U.S. Navy guaranteeing trade routes and U.S. military will always come to the aid of subject states either through overt military involvement or, more commonly through covert/black ops. Supporting the dollar is the equivalent of tribute and deference to U.S. imperial policies as well. The U.S. public could benefit more from this if they wanted to but prefer to live within the ideological world of American Exceptionalism which includes the notion that this is the “land of opportunity” and if only people weren’t lazy they could all get rich and so on.

      1. Aletho

        The oil majors have not been beneficiaries of the Zionist wars across the ME and MENA regions and should not be lumped in as “inter-related”. In fact, they have been more closely identified with the “realist” foreign policy camp.

        The sanctions regimes for example have run squarely counter to their efforts at developing supply as well as lucrative service and shipping contracts. They are actually on record lobbying to counter the various sanctions, and have been the object of penalties and legal actions.

        The US controls international trade in oil anyhow without invasions or occupations. The US navy can embargo shipping at will as it did prior to the Pearl Harbor attack.

        At one time ExxonMobile was the world’s largest corporate entity. Since the invasion of Iraq that status has shifted to the Chinese corporation Sinopec.

        We already know who is boss. Those with control over finance, upon which industrialists (among others) depend.

        Even the Military Industrial (Congressional) Complex (MIC) bows to JINSA’s command. Though the MIC does, in fact, profit from most any military action, it has no particular interest in those actions being solely oriented toward the achievement of Zionist dominance.

        In the end it’s all about Zionism and real estate not commodities, currencies or contracts. The recent 500 years of history in the “new world” being an example of the true imperative. Racist colonialism, “Israel”.

        1. bh2

          “Our national determination to keep free of foreign wars and foreign entanglements cannot prevent us from feeling deep concern when ideals and principles that we have cherished are challenged.”

          It’s important to remember these words by FDR as one of the more flagrant examples of deceitfully dismissing the advice of the founders and the will of the people to stay out of “entanglements” by arguing that a challenge to our “ideals and principles” permits government to ignore these constraints.

          That perverse policy assured any such future “challenge” was a ready-made (if irregularly invoked) permission to attack any other nation whose values don’t meet muster with our esteemed “ideals and principles”.

          Our own government, of course, is excused from measurement against those ideals because, after all, that is precisely how and why we are “exceptional”.

      2. TimR

        “The US public could benefit from this..” – meaning they could push for the fruits of empire to be used to serve the public purpose? Yeah, I don’t think people would be happy with that… They’d rather benefit from empire AND think they’re pure as wind-driven snow.

        On a previous thread you argued for a left/right coalition, represented on the right by the likes of Ron Paul. I agree with the overall point, but I’m undecided about Paul. For one thing, I have been following off and on the writings of Dave Emory (who seems to be a very savvy and knowledgeable guy on the workings of deep state politics such as you talk about) and he links Paul to all sorts of unsavory types that he classifies as being part of the “Underground Reich.” He has a long series ongoing the past several weeks (easy to find on his spitfirelist.com site) about Snowden, where he links Snowden, Greenwald, et al, to the Pauls, Peter Thiel, and other libertarians, and alleges some sort of neo-fascism ideology behind it all. Maybe just a baseless smear? It’s hard to dig through it all, but what I’ve heard/read from Dave Emory, he seems like a dedicated truth-seeker. He thoroughly documents all his claims, but I’m still not sure if he’s being selective in his filter, or (intentionally or not) misreading things. Don’t know if you have any opinion on him or his work?

        1. Banger

          The right is populated by an incredible variety of opinions, ideas and ideologies. If you watch Alex Jones you will see he interviews everyone from John Birch Society members, right-wing religious fanatics, several people on the anti-authoritarian left who write frequently for Counterpunch, comedians who are atheists (Joe Rogan and others) and an incredible number of in-between people. However much leftists hate Jones, he is open to and ready to present ideas he doesn’t agree with and treats his guests well and sympathetically. When he’s on other shows he just yells around and act like a crazy dude. Cause, folks he’s one edgy MF. Many people think he’s actually Bill Hicks who along with Andy Kaufman and George Carlin are on top of my list of Great Ones.

          My point is that the right is highly diverse and open to new ideas while the left is closed off, dull and uninspired so no wonder they have little appeal. As an old “new” leftist I’m so disgusted I am ready to abandon that ship. I don’t care who Ron Paul hangs with–what he’s saying is that we ought to return to Constitutional rule and rule-of-law that respects civil liberties. We don’t have that today–this country is moving rapidly into an Orwellian state and Obama’s stupid and clearly manipulative speech and Kerry’s ridiculous and shameless antics is a reflection of that. They don’t care because they have the mainstream media in their back pocket who will ring the bells of war on cue as they have since the Syrian Crisis began and continue every day of the week. I’ll make my alliances with Ron Paul above the criminals that are currently running things in both parties. Once we can return to some semblance of a republic then we can fight it out with the right.

    2. Yves Smith

      America absolutely benefitted from the imperial project. But it was not ordinary Americans. It’s American corporations.

      Look at how America overthrew the Guatemalan government in the 1950s after it implemented land reforms that expropriated land from United Fruit. How about the coup against Allende?

      The US was able, after the 1987 crash, to call the Bank of Japan and tell it to start buying Treasuries because (no joke) the Treasury market was getting wobbly. The BoJ ordered Japan’s “city banks” to comply. This was a major and pretty much never discussed reason why that meltdown didn’t morph into something nastier. We were able to order Japan around (I heard at Sumitomo bank that the call was not a request, and one of my buddies there was a personal friend and co-author with a top leader at the BoJ, so the intel was clearly good) because Japan was and still is a military protectorate of the US.

      How could US companies dare put factories in China, a Communist country, which could clearly expropriate assets? US multinationals are confident China wouldn’t dare fuck with the world’s sole superpower that way, particularly since our navy could blockade the country and prevent oil from reaching China’s shores.

      I can supply more examples, but you get the picture. And political scientist Tom Ferguson’s research has shown that elections in the US have been driven since at least the 1930s by monied interests, not by ordinary voters.

      1. David Lentini

        But, Yves, you end up with my conclusion—The benefits only go to the few who effectively control the US government. “America” in the examples you offer is not used in the sense of a national or popular action; it’s the synecdoche used to refer to our military and our élites. Thus, there is no “American empire”; rather, we have an American government that strongarms and shakesdown foreign lands for the rich and the corporations.

        And completely in line with Ferguson’s observations, as the rich have gotten richer the adventures and scheme have gotten more outrageous, because the government increasingly responds only to the rich be they individuals or corporate executives.

        1. Yves Smith

          So how is this not an American empire? It suits American interests and extracts various types of treasure (secures oil, safe operations in foreign markets, ability to exploit foreign labor). I’m not getting at all why you think this does NOT constitute an American empire. An empire is not a democratic enterprise. The British empire wasn’t intended to help English workers but serve the aristocracy and merchant classes (the benefits to ordinary people were indirect, greater wealth allowed England to have greater security and remain an independent state). The Roman empire was built on the backs of slaves.

          For instance, the free trade agenda has long included opening foreign capital markets to Wall Street. And with the exceptions of Japan (which has huge cultural barriers) and China (which has not liberalized it financial markets) the US firms have been extremely effective colonizers.

          You seem loath to use the term “American empire” for arrangements where US-based multinational/international players that are calling the shots. They are major campaign donors. You seem to think they are stateless. They aren’t. The US promotes Boeing v. Airbus, the US banks vs. the European universal banks, Silicon Valley (via increasingly aggressive intellectual property laws and insistence on enforcement overseas) etc.

          1. charles sereno

            Commercial interests prevail even when elements of the government are in opposition. A rarely mentioned incident is the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom. Although President Cleveland resisted, it was just a matter of time before Hawaii was annexed. It would make a terrific movie.

            1. charles sereno

              Movie producers, think of the cast of characters! Queen Lili’uokalani (who penned the anthem “Aloha ‘Oe”), the last and only female Hawaiian monarch, her older brother, King David (merry monarch) Kalakaua, Queen Victoria, President Cleveland, Sanford (pineapple) Dole, and a cast of American marines and sailors from the USS Boston. A couter-coup to restore the monarchy failed and the Queen was imprisoned in her own ‘Iolani Palace, the only one in the US. The palace is now a museum, available for screening.

            2. LifelongLib

              Actually, U.S. commercial sugar interests opposed annexation because it would remove the tariffs on Hawaii sugar, the same reason that the Hawaii sugar interests which overthrew the Kingdom wanted it. The Hawaii annexation was more a straight out imperialist move.

          2. David Lentini

            Sorry, Yves, but I like to stick to accepted definitions:


            Yes, we throw our national weight around—illegally and immorally—for the benefit of a few. But we have not, and do not, expert the sort of absolute control over other countries in a way that is consistent with the definition of “empire”. In short, empires are visible and conspicuous; we’re too Machiavellian for that.

            And that’s what’s been so insidious about US plocy the past decades as you show in your examples. By hiding our actions in boardrooms, embassies, and through military and economic “aid” agreements, many of which are forced by economic coercion instead of outright conquest, our élites reap all of the benefits while still honestly denying we are an empire and the public swallows the story hook, line, and sinker.

            If we were a true empire, then we’d just march into Syria with our legions the way Rome did for centuries. We’d own Iraq and Afghanistan too. We’d have an army of several millions. But if we did that, then the public would demand a share of the spoils. This way, and it’s getting worse with drones, the élites don’t have to share a damn thing. They get the spoils without the responsibilities.

            So, I still stick to my point that this is another example of Wolin’s “inverted totalitarianism”. And I fear that until we address the reality of that problem it will be too easy for the media and élites to brush-off the complaints from those who call the US an “empire”.

            I think we’re on the same side in this fight for our democracy. And I don’t mean to be pedantic over the use of language. But I also have been frustrated by the lack of care among many “progressives” in characterizing our problems and in offering solutions. Until we can articulate clearly what is happening, we can’t build an politically effective reform movement.

            1. Lambert Strether Post author

              I think “absolute control” is a bit of a straw man. Yes, the American Empire is not the Roman Empire or the British Empire. (The Brits at one point governed the Indian subcontinent with a staff of 800, IIRC.)

              However, if we look at characteristics like military protectorates (Japan, Europe), and the extraction of resources at the periphery to benefit the center, we could be said to have an empire, yes? (And there’s also the basic imperial hollow bombast.)

            2. H. Alexander Ivey

              As a stickler for detail myself, I can see your point about the use of the word “empire”, after all, the US does not speak of a John Bull nor does Americans in the street talk about how the sun never sets on their empire. But what one, or two word phrase, would you use to emcompass the view, direction, and execution of American policies?

              “Empire” looks like a close approximation. Just saying that Yves’ use of “empire” is not Webster’s use is not going to cut it. Either find and popularize a word or phrase or learn to live with “empire”. Without a name or label, we have no ability to change things. (with a nod to Beard, one of the first things Adam did in Genesis was to name the beasts and plants, to give him mastery over them)

              1. David Lentini

                Lambert and H. Alexander,

                Last words from me on this subject.

                My point is not to stick to definitions robotically, but I think we do need a more accurate description of our current situation. I think we can do better than “empire”, for while I’m always ready to take my definitions with a grain of salt or two, I think here we’re mising some key elemnets of this word’s definition. And I think that’s a deliberate choice by our ruling clases to avoid public outrage and reform. This is an important point, because it allows them to rule under the delusion of empire withoiut notice or objeciton.

                In many ways, having a true empire would be more efficient. We’d just send the army to kick ass. The military and public would understand their functions, as opposed to now where there’s lots of confusion, ambiguity, and anger (see Andrew Bacevitch’s new boook). And we would not have a President-Emperor(ess) making lame speeches trying to gin up wars in Syria, Iraq, or Iran that end up being festering sores—we’d just march and conquer.

                Our problem is that Western democratic institutions have been hijacked, so they have the appearence of operating while actually serving a shadowy group of institutions (not even individuals, since they can change without affecting the system). That’s Wolin’s thesis and I think it works quite well. So, what we’re calling “empire” is just the foreign policy of an inverted totalitarian state (and really a combination of states). A very powerful state, or really group of states linked by corporate and financial and academic institutions, but with no desire for traditional empire. It’s really quite Orwellian.

                So what word or phrase can I offer to coin for this new hell-beast? How about “inverted colonialism”? (Cf. http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/colonialism.) For that’s what were seeking—Political control of other countries for economic exploitation, but with institutional (corporate and bank) “settlement”, rather than a migration of coloists from a mother country.

                1. Snake Arbusto

                  Wouldn’t “neocolonialism” or “neoimperialism” do? In the information age, we don’t do empire the way you used to, but that doesn’t mean it’s not empire. The neo-empire is run on business-school principles, but that doesn’t make it not an empire either. The neo-empire requires the manufacturing of citizen consent, most recently via political correctness and humanitairian posturing (and of course control of information), but neither does that make it not an empire. There’s no need for the migration of an élite to the colonies when what we’ve succeeded in doing is migrating the working class to the colonies. No?

                2. Banger

                  I’m basically with you on this. I wasn’t following this thread until today. Thisis not an “American Empire” it is a “New World Order” or a virtual Empire where the U.S. is the military enforcer for that order. The Empire serves the global elite whether they are Chinese, Russian, French, South African or Romanian. It is not centered in the nation state but in a global class of networked oligarchs. The stuff reported in the media is just deception and misdirection and bears little resemblance to what is actually going on. Ultimately this “empire” will feature a strong interlocking network with a series of eirates or fuedal entities on the bottom. Nation states as such will remain as formal structures that are largely for show.

                3. JTFaraday

                  “Our problem is that Western democratic institutions have been hijacked, so they have the appearence of operating while actually serving a shadowy group of institutions (not even individuals, since they can change without affecting the system).

                  That’s Wolin’s thesis and I think it works quite well. So, what we’re calling “empire” is just the foreign policy of an inverted totalitarian state (and really a combination of states).”

                  I like Wolin’s thesis. I’m not sure about the terminology–my immediate reaction to it, even reading his explanation, was “what’s inverted about it.”

                  Well, apparently what’s inverted about it, and having since read other work by Wolin it becomes more clear, is the total capture of the institutions of government–presumptive “democratic” government– by corporations. The economic has triumphed over all things traditionally political.

                  That said, back to the terminology– the claim that repurposing the term “Empire” for our current status is misleading could also be said of Wolin’s use of “totalitarian.”

                  Thus, I like his thesis/description more than his term. Also, we may immediately think of the Roman Empire, but all modern empires were intimately bound up with power private economic interests and very much furthered the fortunes of corporations. Corporations and modern empires (and nation states!) grew up together.

                  I take your point that it’s not at all hard to see the American Empire as working in the interests of multi-national corporations and US based mega-corporations surely have significant international investment. Thus, you want to call it something else.

            3. dSquib

              You’re simply noting the evolution of empire, from early imperialism to colonialism to what you describe.

              The US does not “own” Iraq or Afghanistan, yes. Why would it want to? People hate parachuted-in administrators. Even installing Chalabi in Iraq was an overstep. Preferential trade agreements and permanent quasi-diplomatic presences are so much smoother.

              Foreign countries are not free to democratically pursue their own ends, because of what the US demands of them. This is empire.

          3. John Jones

            To Yves

            Do you have any tips on what can be done in this circumstance to change the system?

            Would publicly funded elections help?

        2. Roland

          Of course it’s an American Empire. The fact that the majority of the inhabitants of the USA derive little personal benefit from their empire doesn’t mean there isn’t an Empire. It just means that their empire does most of them no good.

          No empire exists to benefit its subjects. Empires exist to benefit their rulers. Duh!

          Most Roman citizens were impoverished by their empire. Before Rome conquered the Mediterranean world, Latium was a land of peasant smallholders. The conquests brought cheap slave labour and cheap grain from Africa and Egypt. That eventually ruined most of the inhabitants of Latium–the very people whose efforts on the battlefield had made the Empire possible.

          The consolidation of the American Empire, and the hollowing out of the US middle class are closely related phenomena.

      2. Minh

        I think the world also benefited somewhat from the socalled imperial project. Here’s the video I made in Hanoi yesterday, in an inhouse kids playground, the culture is American, or Western with Micky Mouse and tooth fairy. We just don’t like the bombs and rockets.

    3. Lambert Strether Post author

      Not, perhaps, my work; I’m just a practitioner. It would be wonderful if a genuine scholar could weigh in on this topic.

      For the rest of us, and especially practitioners, I hope this approach encourages study and practice, especially youthful practitioners. Silva Rhetoricae is a great resource.

      * * *

      The policy debate training I got in high school and college was super, in that (1) it taught me how to marshall evidence in favor my arguments, (2) how to argue to win*, and (3) how to speak in public without fear. I think this last is especially important.

      If you believe, as I do, that there will be more Occupys, or more movements like that, and that civic engagement in general will increase, debate training is great practice, and thinking about rhetoric is necessary. The art of persuasion! People don’t necessarily adopt ideas just because they are good…

      NOTE * I still like to win, a lot, but I’ve surrendered a lot of the “any stick to beat a dog” tactics I used when I was much more young and much more foolish….

  2. Ray Phenicie

    Thank you Lambert for an excellent deconstruction of Mr. Obama’s speech. It reveals him to be the cruel dictator that he is. What is particularly revealing is the line that our massacres of Iraqi, Pakistani and Afghanistan children don’t matter. I could read no further; I was already thinking during this whole brouhaha about Syria that we have so been here already or ‘it’s deja vu all over again.’
    The link to the Las Vegas Sun’s article-“Everything you need to know about the factions at play in Syria” could serve as a starting point for Syria 101. I’m afraid that today’s American reading audience is not ready to comprehend all of that which has a lot to do with why we are involved in more internationally based criminal actions, this time in Syria.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      It looked to me like the Las Vegas Sun article was lucid and not agenda-driven (to the extent that anything can be). So it was very interesting. However, I’m not convinced we know all that much about the Syrian opposition, and that’s a reason to avoid getting embroiled with them.

  3. Hugh

    As I keep asking, what specific legal authority does Obama have to launch an attack on Syria? Being Commander-in-Chief is not such a legal authority. So I would like someone to cite to me, or ask the White House and Obama, chapter and verse. What act? what resolution? Give me a reference.

    “So even though I possess the authority to order military strikes, I believed it was right, in the absence of a direct or imminent threat to our security, to take this debate to Congress”

    Imminence is an issue addressed in the War Powers Act. Even in the case of imminent hostilities or actual hostilities, the War Powers Act requires

    the president shall submit within 48 hours to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and to the President pro tempore of the Senate a report, in writing, setting forth–

    (A) the circumstances necessitating the introduction of United States Armed Forces;

    (B) the constitutional and legislative authority under which such introduction took place; and

    ( C) the estimated scope and duration of the hostilities or involvement.

    Furthermore, the President must terminate any use of the armed forces if within 60 days he has not received from Congress an authorization, declaration of war, or a 60 day extension.

    Not that the law means that much any more but that is the black letter of it.

    Obama says that we can not resolve others’ civil wars, but both Afghanistan and Iraq were civil wars which were precipitated by our intervention.

    Obama also says that he has spent the last 4 1/2 years ending wars. This is a lie. He got out of Iraq on Bush’s timetable, and he tried to arrange, but failed, to keep US troops in Iraq after the withdrawal date. In Afghanistan, he surged. There were more troops in Afghanistan at the start of his second term than Bush had there when he left office. Obama has also angled to keep some US troops in Afghanistan until 2024. And as lambert says, drones, drones, drones.

    1. Banger

      Hugh, the current regime or really any regime that has come after 1963 does not have to go by any law other than the law of force. To be more precise, since 2001, the USG has removed all legal barriers to the use of force by the national security state which is not subject to elections or oversight by either the courts or Congress because as far as the leadership of that state within a state is concerned we are “at war” perpetually. Still, even the national security state must try and convince the public that it is acting in its best interest–democracy is not dead yet and even if it was, even Machiavelli that having the public on your side is essential for the Prince or in this case the Prince by committee.

      Rule of law was violated both in Iraq and Afghanistan not just by going to war with countries that had done nothing to us (the Afghan gov’t had nothing to do with 9-11 it only harbored several hundred terrorists who were not under its control). The U.S. also has routinely broken the Geneva Conventions on war which is supposed to be the law. In contrast, assuming the Syrian gov’t used gas, technicall Syria has not violated the Chemical Weapons convention because it never signed it! Something not known or ever talked about in this country!

      We are, in my opinion, living under a usurper government who Confucius tells us we ought not honor nor follow–in fact we are duty-bound to oppose it.

    2. Doug Terpstra

      Obama’s claim violates US law, as you spell out, but also red-letter international law, which only authorizes force in clear and urgent self-defense or as authorized by the UN Security Council. Under such circumstances, Syria would be fully justified in attacking US forces.

      Thus, as Banger notes, Obama’s brazen speech brands him as a war criminal and illegitimate.

      1. Stan Musical

        The only way any of this egregious disregard for the rule of law, either US or international, makes any sense to me at least is if COG were in place.

        Nice if there were a way analogous to a FOIA request that one could find out if it was indeed implemented on 9/11 by Cheney. All the evidence points to it.

        That makes Obama just a mouthpiece of mis-and disinformation–not that that’s too far from BAU anyway.

        1. JerseyJeffersonian

          COG is an acronym for Continuity of Government. Here is a link to one explanation of this term and its basic application (a bit out of date in that it fails to note that the State of Emergency continues to be extended year by year):


          I assume that the point that you are driving at, Stan, is that the activation of the COG has undercut the authority of the Congress in many essential ways, and served to centralize power into the hands of a largely unanswerable Executive. (Hence, Obama’s otherwise insouciant assumption that he has the unilateral authority to authorize military strikes absent specific authorization from Congress.) The COG, in conjuction with other Congressional acts such as the PATRIOT Act, and the NDAA, have in essence established a role for the Executive analagous to that of the ancient Roman position of Dictator.


          This would be an infelicitous development, arguably the formal annunciation of the overt control by the Deep State of the former Republic. Our Unitary Executive is just playing coy pretending to defer to the Congress in at least many matters, rather as Caesar Augustus kept up many of the forms of Senatorial government in ancient Rome, although he clearly was Imperator.

          If I am incorrect in my interpretation, please feel free to disabuse me of my ignorance.

  4. McKillop

    Thanks for your work: I enjoy the effort you make to expose the so-called oratorical expertise.
    Another problem with synechdoche is that to refute the part other parts of the whole need to mentioned and people haven’t the patience.

  5. JCohn

    Excellent job here. I didn’t watch the speech because I gave up watching his speeches a while ago because I would always get angry at the chutzpah and hypocrisy on display.

    One additional thing I thought worthy of note was the use of the passive voice in “Over 100,000 people have been killed.” A lot of politicians (O included, I believe) and memebers of the media rephrase that to say that Assad is “responsible for the deaths of 100,000” or something to that effect. Obama uses the passive voice here, not saying who had actually done the killing.

  6. William

    That was fun.

    It should be front and center in everyone’s mind that a year ago Obama basically told the fighters there that he will not intervene unless poison gas was used. IOW, “Please someone use some gas so I have political cover for intervention.” They listened, and apparently, delivered.

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      This is what I think explains recent behavior or the poor quality of the war mongering despite the ferocity. I would be O and company have made promises to the original rebels and have followed through on some, and I don’t think they expected popular opposition in their own countries. O and company may be worried the original rebels (the Sunni army defectors) may not take abandonment or being replaced by Al Qaeda lying down.

      I’m not certain if the Russians would have bothered if bombing Syria was okay with the general populations of the U.S., Turkey, the UK, and whoever else might present a problem because they have been evacuating citizens as well as Tartarus.

      Now the Russians can oppose U.S. policy without risking commercial activity. Putin will increase his standing in Latin America and among the BRICS, and no one is going to cancel travel plans or a business deal.

      Perhaps, Putin even knows WHAT deals were made not promises in the abstract. If he is cagey at all (admittedly Obama may not be the toughest opponent; “I learned chess from Spock. Where is the third level?”), Putin might be holding back after observing the Snowden leaks. Greenwald hasn’t just demonstrated the grossness of the program but has revealed the President will lie immediately without thinking of the consequences.

      People around the world may not trust Putin, but people would believe anything about U.S. foreign policy.

  7. Banger

    Lambert, I’m glad you took on this task but I think you are picking on Obama. I find that all public speakers today tend to speak the way Obama speaks. Obama tunes into the culture fairly well–it’s one of his major strengths. Common parlance even in intellectual circles is full of confusion and reflects the shift from a literary to an image-based culture. When we use words today we are attempting to create some image or gesture or posture not a series of coherent thoughts. He appeals to the left using crying babies, i.e., the left is defined as sentimental and appeals to the right with images of military might meaning the right is simply violent. He is, in effect, advocating for going to war based on sentiments and chauvinism–he thinks that’s enough to convince us.

    You can see this on cable–listen to reports or commentaries on, say Iraq, and they are all just as phony and insincere full of unexamined assumptions that seek only to manipulate the audience.

    The Syrian crisis is deeply significant. The War Party centered in the national security state, the Senate, and, above all, the mainstream media want to go to war and are, in fact, desperate to do so.

    How this crisis pans out may indeed be a major turning point in history. And the playing field, at the moment, is the attitudes and opinion of the American people. So far, the people are reluctant to be stampeded into yet another war and are skeptical of gov’t assertions but the relentless repetition of Assad killing people via gas attacks, unlikely as it is, gets repeated so often that nobody doubts that. Like the the assassination of the 60s or other events from the Gulf of Tonkin, 9-11, and the Iraq WMD assertions the media repeats and repeats and repeats slogans and eventually they become part of life. Colbert repeats it, Letterman repeats it some shrug their shoulders but eventually a vision of the world is presented that prepares the ground for war. There just may be forces on the internet that are in dissent–mainly on the right which has become now the one area where dissent is actually valued and perhaps it will spread.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      My point is that this speech is out of character for Obama. Most other politicians may speak this way, but Obama has most definitely not (see previous examples). So why the change? See the end, where I come down more or less as you do — the exhaustion, the enervation of the speech reflects the exhuastion and enervation of the imperial project, the military, the American people.

      * * *

      On another note, I confess to feeling overwhelmed and flummoxed by the speech — the deeply impacted bullshit. Back in the day when men were men and debate was debate (policy debate, as fast and brutal as football except with evidene and reasoning… and rhetoric) there was a tactic called “the spread,” which was to throw out so many arguments so fast that the other side couldn’t shoot them all down, and those that got through would win the day. Then there was the “sandbag” tactic of holding off on an argument until the other side had no chance to respond to it — the appeal to American exceptionalism at the end (Oh, gawd….) was very much like that. Makes you want to lie down until it all goes away….

      1. Banger

        Lambert: I forgot, in making my comment, to address the “why” of all this. Speeches, are carefully crafted by staff and this speech reflects, probably, serious conflicts in the administration. It is a mistake, in my view, to consider the President as “the decider.” Power in Washington is asserted through factions, cabals, conspiracies as in any imperial capital only more so due to the peculiarities of our system and the sheer magnitude of the stakes involved. The President does not, any longer, take in various opinions and then decides among different choices to come to a decision that will be best for the United States. I suggest to you that he is in a whirlwind of very serious and very nasty interests which he has to somehow assuage. That is simply the condition of Washington today. You often hear “there are no good choices here” well that’s not because there are no good choices but because there are so many forces at work. You will upset or cross allies and enemies within and without. My God, being President in this time must be a nightmare at times. I don’t like Obama or his associates but I feel for him as I felt for all past Presidents. So much responsibility so few real choices.

  8. Jackrabbit

    A few notes:

    1. The speech was probably edited and re-edited as circumstances changed. This would account for some of the complexity and things like use of “is” instead of “are” (they probabably added ‘international community’ to sympathize with Obama statement that “I didn’t set a red-line, the world set a red-line.”)

    At a high level, the speech a speech that was initially designed to pressure Congress to pass AUMF turned into a victory lap and means of spanking nay-sayers (and thereby strengthen the case for a future military action if Obama deems that to be necessary).

    2. Assad was cagey about whether he possessed chemical weapons in the Charlie Rose interview so I don’t think that they had previously admitted to possessing them.

    3. I think it would be helpful to say more about the messaging. This is complex and multi-faceted. The speech has many different parts: MSM sound bites, historical material, current context, etc. Each with a different audience focus and style of delivery.

    For example, who is the audience when Obama is explicit vs. not explicit? Is there any pattern? Does he point the finger at Assad in places that are expected to be picked up by MSM but then hedge in other parts?

    1) International *rules* instead of International Law;

    2) ‘Assad used gas’ vs ‘the Syrian government is responsible’ (all governments are responsible for what happens inside their borders, aren’t they?)

    3) ‘extremists’ vs. ‘Al Queda’

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Good catch on #1!

      One reason the speech so flummoxed me was that beside his direct address to the American people (assuming that to be genuine) I couldn’t figure out who the audience was. And from the “Syria” / “Syrian Crisis” synecdoche point, there are a lot of audiences.

    1. Milo Minderbinder

      Word. “Anchor of global security.” That’s so sad, the pathetic pretense that the US can control this peacemaking process.

      One of the things Putin did in his editorial was pre-empt Obama’s delusional jingoism by explaining how it’s going to go. It’s going to go by the book. In the transnational space all proposals start with the authorities: particularly in this case, where the authorities are backed up by approx. 3K strategic warheads of up to 50 Megatons (counting only the SCO + Pakistan).

      So Obama can talk out his ass at home, but in the real world he will need to take a position on the authorities. Until those crucial choices are agreed, the US cannot do shit, because Russia will be making sure that all the parties dot the i’s and cross the t’s.

      Any serious party to the negotiations will need to take a position on several questions: Is chemical weapons destruction to be carried out under the CWC? If so, how is reciprocity of reservations to be maintained given US failure to comply with the CWC? And is the Security Council to be seized of the matter? If so, under Article VI or Article VII? If under Article VI, how do you control continuing US breaches of the peace and threats to peace? If under Article VII, how do you comply with the Vienna Convention Article 52 prohibition on duress? How is Syrian disarmament to be brought into conformity with the regional objective of S/RES/687 (1991) point 14?

      Each question poses an existential threat to the criminal officials of the US/Israeli proliferation plot of 25/9/69. USG is shitting bricks because disarmament of the Syrian pariah state will set the precedent for disarmament of the Israeli pariah state – when that state inevitably ceases to be of use, like the Marcos regime before it, and the Pahlavi regime, and Mubarak, and the Baathists of Iraq, and the Afrikaners. When goons fall out of favor, all they have to protect themselves is blackmail. (Ask Marc Grossman what they have on him!)

      1. McKillop

        I agree.
        It’s worth the effort, personally, in that you and the people who read your analysis are able to understand specific rhetoric features that are used _constantly_ to persuade us. To think about the structures of language – to think about anything, even if you think ‘too much’ aids our efforts to understand.
        Aware, say, of synecdoche, we have a better chance of understanding when it’s being used to deceive us. We might also understand how the speaker is himself deceived into believing a part is the whole, or that a generalization is fashioned from too few specifics. A particular analysis requires close reading and reasoning rather than a cliched and instant dismissal, which can itself be discounted. Mr. Obama has been touted as a fine speaker, and he is given bona fides generally because of his oratorical ability. The adage that “bullshit baffles brains’ is easily dismissed, but when we read how this brainy man is himself using rhetoric to baffle others, to lie, to assert a tyrannical authority, we are able to refute his arguments. Catching him out both reminds and teaches us of his subterfuge And our own prejudices can be caught.
        It isn’t just personal, is it?
        The propaganda poured out by our media, our politicians, even our intellectuals, is nasty stuff that is causing even nastier stuff (imo) to flourish. If we dismiss the effort as “. . . not worth your time anymore. . . ” we abandon the field to those who understand the worth of language and pay others to convince us. You don’t catch those buggers calling it quits.
        I encourage you to stay.
        (As you say, it helps to know that others are crazy!!)

  9. joeshump

    Great work Lambert. I commend your continual efforts to rhetorically analyize these speeches. Always a fun read!

  10. Timothy Gawne

    An excellent analysis as usual. Here is another angle on the topic.

    We have now reached a phase where the point is that the speech is sloppy because Obama doesn’t care! He can just get up and throw together stuff that sounds good and get away with it. Those of us in academia who see this trick in student essays call this “word salad”.

    So while Obama is giving weird speeches, and we are nit-picking the grammar, he is still president. The banks are still getting trillions of dollars and the average person is getting screwed. Immigration is still at record highs and growing, and wages are being crushed by a flooded labor market. Obamacare – shorn of all the bits that might have cost big business money – is going to start and the average person will be ripped off and big medica will make a fortune. And he will find another way to off Assad – more money to jihadis, another false-flag incident, something.

    This is not an academic exercise in speechwriting. This is about power. Obama’s wealthy patrons are winning, and we are losing. Why do we think we are so smart, anyhow?

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      I wouldn’t say Obama’s speeches have ever had points. They have always been word salads of rhetorical devices and bland stories which only tell partial truths. You might remember his race speech, “turn off the tv” and “Michelle’s father had a great city job in Chicago because he worked hard.”

      The only time he was remotely coherent was when he dismissed the idea “Two Americas” at the 2004 DNC speech by obscuring the economic disparity behind other issues about being tough guys, jesus (we worship an awesome god; who is going to boo that in 2004? Richard Dawkins.), and other nonsense unrelated to the issues at hand.

      The Teabaggers were lifting from O’s speeches because they were so bland and full of rah rah blather they fit any occasion. The difference is the window dressing is being recognized as window dressing by more people.

    2. Doug Terpstra

      The speech was not up to Machiavellian standards, lacking Obama’s usual high art of deception. It may be fatigue or pique (after all, I’m the decider in all things), or more likely IMO, Putin caught him completely off guard (As in: do you really want war, a real war, with someone shooting back?). To me, that best explains The US Knesset’s unexpected reluctance to rubber-stamp another illegal war; AIPAC/Israel isn’t so cocksure this time about taking on Russia’s formidable and growing fleet in the Mediterranean, including carrier killer missiles.



      1. F. Beard

        Ah yes, the balance of terror. I am ashamed that the US needs such to behave correctly but without internalized fear of God, we should be thankful of at least that check on our behavior.

        The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the judgments of the Lord are true; they are righteous altogether. Psalm 19:9

  11. Paul Tioxon


    While at the negotiation table in Paris, in talks for ending the war in Viet Nam, Nixon personally ordered THE CHRISTMAS bombings. He bombed the City Of Hanoi. Of course, it was a targeted bombing of military targets, you know, command and control, missile sites, ammo warehouses. Only 1,318 deaths, including a hospital, accidentally bombed twice, by the targeted B-52s. Over a 100 B52s, hour after hour. Targeted.

    President Obama, you will only repeat the mistakes of past butchers and traumatize more Syrians. Your conflicted, incoherent speech, contradicting itself in part, bellicose here, doubtful and wavering there but willing to submit to the use of diplomacy to gain your stated end: degrade chemical weapons capacity the Assad regime. Just walk away from the fight and don’t stand your ground. It’s not even our ground to stand. Accept the reality of a multi-polar world and in this instance, accept Russia as a joint partner in reaching your stated goal of chemical weapons diminished in their available capacity in Syria. If they give up even a fraction of their stockpile, it would be more than your bombings would curtail.

      1. Susan the other

        I definitely agree with you Banger. There can only really be two possibilities. One, we are getting out of the middle east and passing the torch to the greater fool (Russia and the Saudis – sorry for such a mixed metaphor) because we are exhausted with the whole thing and oil isn’t worth it anymore. We may still achieve a certain control over the oil market even if we get out completely. We will probably cease to be the reserve currency but that is inevitable, besides which we only agreed to be the reserve currency of the world because we needed to churn the world into a frenzy of capitalism to defeat communism. We now have to clean up the godawful mess that idiocy left behind. And two, we really wanna stay there and be bled dry for no discernible reason except that our MIC corporations are addicted to it. But this isn’t decided yet. Just this morning the AP released a newsflash that AlQaeda has issued a directive to attack the United States on its own soil, bomb, sabotage, whatever. And the implied weapon, from all the fuss over Syria, is of course something awful like sarin. So if the warmongers are serious and willing to create this kind of chaos here in America we are in for a rough ride. I prefer to think we are sane enough to call it quits on the whole mess. But there is no evidence to support that.

        1. Banger

          Susan, it is so complicated it makes my head spin. The U.S. ship of state is just so huge, the consequences so high, the pressure, the divided loyalties, the double dealers, the hustlers, the black ops people, the criminal gangs, the mad religious fanatics and yes, thank God, the people who keep a cool head and try to calm down the heat on all sides–it’a frigging miracle that the whole thing stays in some kind of balance.

          1. OpenThePodBayDoorsHAL

            Ah but what an interesting creature we have as Basketballer-in-Chief. When he first showed up I like many reserved judgement. When he appointed Geithner (pre-inauguration in 2009) I knew the jig was up, but it’s taken many years for most people to realize the same. Along the way I’ve tried to fathom the source of his perfidy. Was it ignorance? Evil? Somebody pulling the strings? Did he have superior intelligence, or superior insight I just couldn’t see?
            Unfortunately I’ve concluded that he means well but just doesn’t have the skills or experience for the role. All a one-time state senator and community organizer COULD do was “rely on experts”. With no sense of history and just cursory knowledge of the larger issues at stake he lurched ahead. Samantha Powers for the UN? Sure. Susan Rice? She’s a smart lady, besides Hilary said she’s OK. Larry Summers for the Fed? Yeah sure he showed me some great graphs when I met him. Folks we’re seeing just plain old garden variety incompetence at work, the Peter Principle times 10. But the dangerous part is Obomba’s gambler’s streak. When cornered he doubles down. That works when you’ve got the cards…but he’s playing with an empty deck.

  12. Samuel Conner

    Regarding note 29, subject/verb agreement, perhaps “is” is intentional, or a “tell”. The only actor that matters is the US. “and the international community” is not a coordinated actor — “with the consent or over the objections of the international community; it matters not”

    1. TK421

      That’s what I was thinking too. That “international community” part was most likely an afterthought. Obama doesn’t care about them.

  13. docg

    Lambert, you’ve got a bad case of the Raging Obamas. An allergic reaction leading to out of control verbal diarrhea. I understand your frustration, feel your pain, etc., but for me the solution is simply to ignore such speeches — Just Say No. Tuesday night in my neck of the media woods is the time for House reruns, not predictable and boring political rhetoric.

    Yes, it would be irresponsible to allow the use of chemical weapons to go unpunished. But it would also be irresponsible to respond in such a manner as to endanger more lives, precipitate a wider war, and suck the US into yet another Middle East folly.

    As for the rest, one political speech is just about the same as every other, so I, for one, prefer not to get all worked up over that sort of thing, and simply allow myself to be amused (complete with superior smile on my face — too bad you can’t see it.)

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      “Yes, it would be irresponsible to allow the use of chemical weapons to go unpunished”

      I don’t think this is a good position at all. First, not all weapon systems are the same, not even chemical weapons. There is a pre-existing conflict which has lasted for two years with massive outside support propping up and encouraging the dismantlement of a regime. Chemical weapons were outlawed because they don’t work particularly well. White phosphorus and Depleted Uranium have particular battlefied uses. They seem barbaric, but they are part of the reason I’m antiwar because these weapons are practical if you want to win. People who pretend you can go to war and not use them are idiots. Its like the coach who says, “I don’t want to win by 30, I’m going to let the scrubs play.” Only brutal regimes which liked the idea being sadistic kept mass chemical weapons stockpiles which are banned by numerous treaties.

      Punishment suggests the United States has some kind of moral authority which is absurd, and it wouldn’t be treaty enforcement because Syria isn’t a member of the applicable accords even if the regime used chemical weapons.

      If this was a random conflict with no U.S. interference or directly violated a treaty or demand our treaty obligations to be enforced, I might entertain the argument that we have a moral obligation or practical obligation to set an example, I bet the Russians and Chinese would even agree, but the U.S. has been interfering for some time now. Americans may be blind to this reality, but the rest of the world refers to the situation as a proxy war. The U.S. is very responsible for anything which has transpired in Syria. The Assad regime will not go down without a fight. This is reality. There are too many people involved. Its not a small cadre. If Assad and a few people skip town for money, they will be targets of the people they left behind. From the Assad regime perspective, the Alawite regime has to win considering the state of the Islamic fighters trying to overthrow the regime. What would have happened if Syrian Sunni army defectors didn’t expect allied assistance? My guess is they would have kept their positions in the regime.

      The U.S. has ignored the plight of refugees, flooded the region with military grade weapons, and knocked over two regimes which dismantled their WMD programs already. U.S. action without significant reforms in any conflict would represent irresponsible behavior regardless of intentions because genuine diplomacy is about trust and understanding. The U.S. can not be trusted and can not arbiters of responsibility around the globe.

      1. docg

        I get your point and for the most part agree. Nevertheless, the use of chemical weapons is, and has for some time been, a violation of international law. If Assad has flouted that law, then it’s incumbent on the international community to hold him to account — i.e. “punish” him. The failure to punish him would amount to the failure to enforce international law, which would render the UN, or the Hague Tribunal, ineffective and pointless, making it difficult if not impossible to prosecute anyone for crimes against humanity, for example.

        Which is NOT to say that it’s up to the USA to enforce that law unilaterally. What Obama is arguing is that if the UN is unable to do it, then it’s incumbent on the USA to do it, and on that point I do NOT agree. International law can only be enforced by an internationally sanctioned body, and that body, as Putin has reminded us, is the UN, and ONLY the UN.

        1. Roland

          It is by no means settled that the Syrian government used chemical weapons.

          The rebels also possess chemical weapons which they captured earlier in the war–indeed they repeatedly boasted about it. Some of the Syrian rebel factions are closely allied to the Iraqi guerrilla groups who made chemical attacks during the internecine fighting which followed the invasion of that country. The rebels, therefore, definitely possess chemical weapons and already have a track record of ruthlessly employing them against noncombatants in a civil war situation.

          Combine the admitted capability, proven track record, and the obvious attraction of eliciting foreign intervention on their behalf, and I would say there is a strong case to be made that the Syrian rebels have been responsible for chemical weapons use.

          Alternatively, the Syrian rebels may have deliberately cached quantities of chemical weapons in places where they expected government bombardment, hoping to either deter such bombardment, or failing that, give foreign powers a pretext to intervene on the rebel side. In this case, the rebels would be guilty only of using a variant of the usual “human shield” tactic.

    2. Lambert Strether Post author

      Consider reading the post. As I show, this speech is not like Obama’s others, and that leads to various interesting and potential useful results.

      Thanks, however, for the long-distance psychological diagnosis. I’ll have to give it some thought.

  14. TK421

    In the spirit of this post, I’d like to parse some language myself: I find it nearly impossible to take seriously a piece of writing infected with absurd linguistic tics like “Also too.” What is the point of using such a worthless scrap of language? This little tic originated with the moronic Sarah Palin, so now people use it ironically. Well, then, which is it? Is this entire post an exercise in ironic detachment or do you really mean what you’re saying? And if you mean it and think it’s important, why use written mannerisms to indicate otherwise?

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      “Also too” is a reference for the anti-Iraq War blogger Atrios. Recently, I learned Lambert Strether use to fill in for Atrios back in the day, but many elements of the on-line antiwar commentariat use and borrow lines from Atrios who started back in 2002/03.

      SPOILER ALERT*, it is irony! Atrios and his admirers use “Also Too” to mock the sophomoric reasoning of both the political and punditry who described complicated issues through emotional appeals and bizarre arguments devoid of context or evidence but full of discredited rumor and myth. For example, Atrios might write about Republican complaints about the Beghazi situation with the post title, “Hillary Clinton Planned Benghazi, Also Too Dress Stain.” Watch an interview on CNN and watch pushback against any guest with a non-establishment position, every question from interviewer could be preceded by “also too.”

      In the case of the President’s speech on Tuesday, Obama was guily of “also too” remarks in his structure despite the serious nature of his speech. Is the implication that the President ignorant or reaching for anything to get his war? The answer is both, but why should everyone be so dour? The President’s speech was childish given the severity of the discussion and should be mocked.

      *I couldn’t resist. Breaking Bad spoiler: Gus’s chicken is made out of people. I’ve ruined the ending for everyone.

    2. charles sereno

      Your comment is not “in the spirit of the post.” If you’re too dense to get the meaning, I’ll try to help. (Also too, Agent Orange.) is a shortened form of “Also (in Vietnam) too, Agent Orange.” The “too” signified that he wasn’t talking about Iran or Iraq and presumed the reader would understand Vietnam. BTW, did you mean “infested with absurd linguistic ticks” or “infected with absurd linguistic tics”? In either case, an elegant phrase that would make Sarah envious!

      1. Lambert Strether Post author

        Also too, “also too” is ironic. The phrase sounds like what follows should be trivial, so the irony lies in referring to something that is not trivial (“Also too, World War III”).

        If course, if Atrios’s funny little riff — and he’s a genius at concision — grows like kudzu all over the NC comment section, that might raise concerns, but for now I would appeal to the commenter to sit back and enjoy the blogosphere.

  15. Seal

    What about the possibility Obomba is taking prescription meds like sleep aids or a mood enhancer/anti-depressant

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      I think the problem is Obama is pitching a product which doesn’t poll well for the first time. “Supporting education” and “first rate schools” is easy to do. Obama’s status as bi-racial, educated man with a stylish and smart wife, not a little woman, is a great advertiser.

      The product has been tried, and Obama is under pressure of declining polling. He wants a great legacy, but corporations have already won delays in implementation of ACA and now unions want to delays. Obama is under pressure he hasn’t experienced except from the deranged because the nominal left has been loyal to Obama for a variety of reasons, but the loyalty started to break before the last election. People voted with the promise he would be better in his second term. Continued Social Security reform attempts broke that promise, and Snowden completely exposed Obama’s duplicitous nature as more than just a reality of short term politics of a Republican House (Just to be clear, the new crop of Teabaggers are slightly off the reservation uncouth Republicans. The Republicans have been godawful monsters for decades. The worshippers of bipartisanship are monsters who support the GOP).

      Who did he beat in elections? Jack Ryan. A scandal helped with that. Hillary. She lets Bill’s loser friends run things, and they didn’t even bother to check delegate allocation rules. John McCain. And finally, Mittens.

    2. Yves Smith

      I think pretty probable. Notice how shitty he’s started looking? In the last 2-3 months he’s gotten visibly greyer and his face is looking more haggard.

      So (assuming he wasn’t using them already), it’s not hard to imagine he’s using stimulants and/or sleep aids. And my experience in NYC is that if you say you are fatigued, doctors reach for the prescription pad. They hand Adderall out like candy when it’s a close cousin of meth. Need I say more?

  16. Sandwichman

    “And so, to my friends on the right… To my friends on the left…”

    Obama recycles the old, insulting cliches about conservatives having no heart and liberals (used to be socialists) having no brain. I guess that leaves the arrogant, “centrist” Mr. O. as unique in his profoundly intellectual compassion.

  17. Jerry

    Maybe the reason his speech was so unusual is that it was the rebels backed by the Saudi’s (perhaps the US too) that use the chemical weapons according to the report in Bild am Sonntag, which is a widely read and influential national Sunday newspaper, reported that the head of the German Foreign Intelligence agency, Gerhard Schindler, last week told a select group of German lawmakers that intercepted communications had convinced German intelligence officials that Assad did not order or approve what is believed to be a sarin gas attack on Aug. 21 that killed hundreds of people in Damascus’ eastern suburbs.

    The only ones that are using chemical weapons in Syria are the rebels.
    Read more at http://www.prophecynewswatch.com/2013/September12/121.html#IqD3VsUPf8gIouXW.99

  18. TC

    Whereas the repentent perjurer Colin Powell had “commanding” above him a limp noodle lacking the mental acuity to patriotically resist the intention of the U.S. Executive’s deep state string pullers, the unrepentent perjurer John “Skull & Bones” Kerry finds above him at least backbone enough to resist the imperial drive toward all-out war: a drive being led by Britain and France. So, who really cares about the full measure of sophistry to be discerned in the president’s speech Tueday night? Other than what reasonable comparison we might make contrasting Obama’s Syria with Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs, the one ace-in-the-hole Obama possesses that Kennedy did not have is a hopelessly insolvent trans-Atlantic banking system, the likes of which to a frightfully vulnerable deep state still makes the president more valuable alive than dead.

    The trouble warmongering marionettes of the U.S. political class have today is that their deep state controllers have overplayed their hand, making any US alliance with headless Chicken Littles, Britain and France, appear what it in fact is: an alliance with the very states who are most actively animating al Qaeda. Those wishing to avoid World War need take the most welcome cue delivered by Putin this week, and drop these imperialist scumbags like a bad cigarette habit.

    Britain and France: same Venice, different century. That’s all Americans need understand.

  19. Ron

    I have not followed the Syria gas story very closely but two items have caught my attention:

    1. American Public does not seem up for another war or even another so called punishing military strike to right a wrong.

    2. Putin’s direct appeal via the NY times to both the American public and world press seems surreal in the context of post cold war American imperial activity. Something very different is brewing in the world of foreign policy.

      1. Doug Terpstra

        I think they protest too much. And Eugene Robinson has weird fantasies: “As I read Vladimir Putin’s sanctimonious op-ed about U.S. policy in Syria, I imagined the Russian president sitting at the keyboard in a lovely pink negligee…Exceptional? You bet.”

        Yup, quite exceptional, Eugene. Yuck. BTW, please don’t share your private fantasies about Obama with us.

    1. Doug Terpstra

      Putin’s public Op-Ed in the (Neocon) Times is historic, as Yves said, regardless of one’s opinion of the man. Not only was his message far more coherent and persuasive than Obama’s speech, but it strongly implies a much more forceful, official “BASTA!” in private — one backed up by Russia’s growing fleet in the Mediterranean, including carrier killers. I’ll bet Putin, with much of the rest of the world, is thoroughly fed up with imperial Neocon cowboys. The difference is he’s the only one with the military and the oil to say “stop!” with any authority.

      Russian Navy Expands Mediterranean Fleet to Ten Warships

      Yossef Bodansky, in Syrian Chemical Attack: More Evidence Only Leads to More Questions, casts serious doubt on Obama’s “We know …we know…we know…” and continues WRT both Russia and China:

      The US placed itself as the self-anointed manager and arbiter of the outcome of this fateful dynamic. Nobody in the region believes the Obama White House’s assurances about a limited strike with no intent of “regime change”. After all this was the exact assurances given by the Obama Administration on the eve of the UNSC’s vote on Libya solely in order to convince Russia and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to abstain and let the resolution pass (which they did). Now, should the US strike Syria, alone or at the head of a makeshift coalition, the US would have crossed the threshold of active participation and leadership.

      1. skippy

        To see Fauxnewts Bill demurely opine on loss of powers projection juxtaposed by pasts spittle filled bloviation… is a thing to behold.

        skippy… its getting hard to tell if their chastising children, growing a new skin, or making preparation’s for if/when a mob awakes. Hay… hay.. the Doc had my meds all screwed up gang… its sorted now…

  20. Sigmund Krieger


    You parse too much. The speech was bullshit. The delivery and content embarrassing. With his NY Times piece Putin has achieved something that will haunt for a good number of years. He now has two client states in the Middle East, Iran and Syria. With his own production of oil he now controls the oil that goes to Europe. He now is friends with Shite states who oppose the Wahabist Sunni’s.

    Our guy is an embarrassment and the little bad bear from the steppes is the glorious hero of Mother Russia. Instead of parsing, build a case for impeachment.

    1. Yves Smith

      I suggest you act like a grownup and skip past these posts rather than piss on the writer. Better manners, please.

      Lambert makes clear why he’s doing this, to train people to understand rhetorical tricks. Obama won in 2008 and got reelected in 2012 in large measure due to his packaging, and his oratorical skills (such as they are) are key to his brand. His speech (speech, mind you) at the 2004 Dem convention is what put him on the road to being a Presidential candidate. His speeches have been one of his major propaganda tools. Look at the legions of Obots who still buy into his twattle despite the evidence that he’s a neoliberal operative who puts on progressive clothing when he needs to placate the much-abused Dem party base.

      It’s better to teach someone to fish than give them fish. Lambert is giving readers valuable tools. If you don’t have the attention span for that, these posts are clearly labeled and not at all difficult to avoid.

    2. JerseyJeffersonian

      While I agree that Mr. Krieger was a bit rough on Mr. Strether’s honest efforts at exegesis, and dismissive in tone, there were a couple of insights in his post that should not be overlooked in their potential significance.

      Putin has more explicitly associated himself as protector of the Shia, along with their offshoots, the Alawi, as well as the Ismailis, the Kurds, and the Christians, particularly the Orthodox, in Syria in his support for the Assad government. This implicitly includes a vigilant eye toward aggrandizements from and aggression against the Shia of Iran, longstanding allies of Assad. This is a significant development; the Shia, along with these other minorities have been on the back foot contending with the aggressions of the Sunnis, led by Saudi Arabia and its sponsorship of the Salafist Wahabbis, along with aid from the West, and now the newly-manifest Islamist regime in Turkey. These are the Muslims with whom the Russians have been struggling for years, first in Afghanistan, but then later also in Chechnya, Ingushetia, and to some extent in Dagestan. By this bold move, Putin has aligned himself particularly with the Shia (along with other minorities similarly beset by the Salafist Wahabbis). This permits the Russians to act as a counterpoise to the aggressions of the Islamist Sunnis against whom they have been fighting for years themselves, only this time with potential allies who had been feeling themselves very much under siege from the Wahabbi-backed Islamist Sunnis.

      I think that it is a big deal that Putin has laid down the marker that Western-backed, Sunni Islamists will now be constrained to think about a newly developing alliance against them. President Putin made it clear in this editorial that the days of cowboy impunity from the constraints posed by the Security Council will no longer be permitted.

      As a side issue, the full-bore support being given to the efforts of Sunni Salafist Jihadis to overthrow the Assad government by the current President of Turkey has removed any lingering doubts as to their intent to move Turkey further into the direction of full-blown Islamism and to continue the replacement of the secularist state of Kemal Attaturk with the imposition of Sharia law. Those in Europe who had been long skeptical of the wisdom of granting EU status to Turkey are probably feeling quite vindicated in that skepticism at this point.

      Turkey has nourished ambitions to work toward Pan-Turkism, something that is worrisome not only to the Russians, but also the Chinese, whose nations either contain Turkic peoples or whose nations border ethnically-Turkic states. Given that the nation of Turkey is moving toward Islamism and away from secularism as a model for the state, that presents some genuine concerns to both Russia and China. They are both members of the Shanghai Cooperative Organization (and if my memory serves me well, Iran now possesses observer status in that institution). The states that increasingly Islamist Turkey wishes to draw into its own orbit, are nations in the “near abroad” of both China and Russia, and significant Turkic groups are found within the borders of both China and Russia.

      These developments will only put China and Russia on high alert, and foment antagonism.

      So we have more shallow, uninformed thinking from Obama’s so-called national security team on display. There are deep histories here with which they are trifling: Sunni-Shia hostilities; the long contest between Turkey and Russia for control in Central Asia.

      So let’s hear it for the narcissist self-promoter from Chicago, shall we?

      1. John Jones

        Interesting post
        What you say might be right.
        But neither was kemalism good for people around and in Turkey who were not Turkish.

  21. DM

    To me, the entire issue boils down to why is killing people with chemical weapons bad and killing people with Tomahawk missiles O.K. In either case, the party is solving problems by killing the opponent. After that, it’s just an argument about methodology.

  22. barrisj

    Over at Lawyers, Guns & Money Eric Loomis sums up tersely and succinctly much of the impetus of POTUS’ speech:

    Putin’s all-time classic trolling of the United States in his Times op-ed did at least have the true statement that American exceptionalism is ridiculous.

    You know what is exceptional about the United States?

    Our belief in American exceptionalism.

    And that’s about it.


  23. Ken Ward

    Was Obama’s use of dead metaphors contagious? Had Freud watched the speech on Austro-Hungarian state television, he would have had ‘a field day’ when he heard that there was no point to a pinprick strike?

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      You’re right on “field day,” I suppose, so write me a big fat check and every word will be gold, I promise! For now, this is a blog and I’m a blogger. Think of these little errors as signs of authenticity, like scars in fine leather.

  24. steve from virginia

    Lambert, your home life must be barren.

    My strategy for dealing w/ Obama when he appears online, on the radio or elsewhere is to immediately switch him off.

    Obama cannot articulate a Syrian strategy because doing so would appear crass: to eliminate Syrian fuel consumption by way of warfare … so that it might be exported to the United States.

    Random, living Syrians have inner organs cut out and eaten on YouTube so that Americans might drive.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Smarter ad homs, please. At least my home life isn’t plagued with an excess of stupid.

      Adding, I can’t stand to listen to the guy either. Did you notice I worked from a transcript?

      1. steve from virginia


        My mother instructed me never to engage in a battle of wits with an unarmed person.

        As for difficulties with my observation, what are they, specifically?

        You might or might not have noticed that the US military is engaged all over Northern Africa and South-western Asia; there is never a resolution to the ongoing conflicts. Certainly Egyptians, Syrians, Yemenis, Libyans, Pakistanis, Iraqis, Afghans, Ugandans, Malians and others are not lining up to buy new cars (or food, but who is counting?)

        Please take the time to look up Jeffery Brown’s ‘Export Land Model’ and net energy. Warfare is the means by which the net energy dynamic is reversed.

        … and get rid of that car … or go over to Jalopnik.

  25. bjondo

    cant say I remember the Syrian govt denying it has chemical weapons.

    since we, the u.s. , has sold the chemicals necessary to make these weapons, what is the surprise and why the constant mouthing?

    just more lies and deceptions on the part of the media and the politicians.

  26. Sign

    Kerry/Neocons conspired together……..that explains the strangeness.

    Hilliary is back as defacto SecofState imo.

  27. ian

    Interesting analysis but I’m wondering – why bother?.
    The reaction I’ve had to all the Obama speeches I’ve heard is that they sound good at the time, but an hour after the speech is over, I can’t remember a word. There haven’t been any really memorable turns of phrases, or even ideas. As a result, I haven’t found any of them very persuasive. Cato’s comment comes to mind: “when Cicero spoke, men marveled, when Caesar spoke, men marched”.
    I’m still looking for the Obama speech I can take something away from. Hell, even Bush had his “..the whole world hears you” speech.
    This last one was just more of the same. When people accord someone the title of a great orator, it should be on the basis of actually moving people to do something, and not just superficially pretty language.

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