US & Canada

Syria crisis: Obama speech underwhelms commentators

President Obama

Most commentators were not impressed by President Barack Obama's Tuesday night address to the nation on Syria.

It was one of the "strangest speeches a president has given in my lifetime", wrote Ross Douthat of the New York Times.

"A prime time presidential address should either announce a policy course or make a specific appeal to Congress; it should not be wasted on a situation where the course is so unclear and the appeal so vague and undirected."

Joan Walsh of Salon.com echoed Douthat's criticism, calling it "a strangely lackluster address that essentially served as a placeholder for a theoretical future battle".

Many writers said Mr Obama's speech was disjointed, because he spent most of it apparently building a case for military strikes against Syria, only to acknowledge that recent diplomatic developments may make the use of force unnecessary.

'Noticeably weak'

As the New Republic's John Judis put it: "The speech did not have the structure of an argument, but of a television drama in which the viewer's anxiety is finally relieved by the promise of peaceful resolution."

"The overwhelming emphasis was on humanitarian goals, with a brief, secondary, and noticeably weak effort to buttress that case with talk about threats to our interests," wrote Stanley Kurtz in National Review Online.

The speech was "a time filler", wrote Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal. "The White House had asked for the time and had to fill it."

Others criticised Mr Obama's references in his address to the suffering of the Syrian children.

Erick Erickson of RedState wrote: "When we are doing things 'for the children' as opposed to any other reason, we have no substantive reason for taking an action."

Mr Obama's pleas to remember the children echoed the president's words following last December's mass murder at a school in Newtown, Connecticut, noted Politico columnist Roger Simon.

'Danger of collapse'

Little has changed since that call to action, Simon wrote, but "in Syria, because the weaponry was gas instead of bullets, we are supposed to be ultra-shocked".

Even among those who thought Mr Obama did a good job with the speech, many had caveats.

Matt Miller of the Washington Post wrote that "Obama traded in the wobbly mien he displayed in recent appearances for the confident bearing Americans need from their commander in chief".

He cautioned, however, that "between the long-running box he's now put himself in on Syria, and the prospect of the White House botching another debt ceiling showdown just ahead, the president's authority in his second term is in danger of collapse".

Toward the end of his speech, Mr Obama cited the "exceptional" nature of America as a reason the country should not ignore the use of chemical weapons halfway around the world.

'Lofty conclusion'

Conservatives who picked up on Mr Obama's turn of phrase were none too pleased.

Scott Johnson of the blog PowerLine wrote: "This is American exceptionalism filtered through the mind of a man who doesn't believe it."

Despite the negative reaction among commentators, a CNN poll found 61% of those who watched the speech now support the president's Syria policy.

"The poll suggests that he did what presidents rarely do: change people's minds, if only temporarily," David Kusnet, former head speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, wrote for CNN.

"With down-to-earth arguments and a lofty conclusion, last night's speech was a model of how to turn an audience around, point by point."