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Obama's U.N. Speech Reveals His Greatest Rhetorical Weakness

Stand Honda/AFP/Getty

President Obama's unremarkable speech to the United Nations will probably be picked apart and analyzed for every word he uttered about Iran. But there was one particular formulation that caught my eye. Here was what he said: 

What broader conclusions can be drawn from America’s policy toward Syria? I know there are those who have been frustrated by our unwillingness to use our military might to depose Assad, and believe that a failure to do so indicates a weakening of America’s resolve in the region. Others have suggested that my willingness to direct even limited military strikes to deter the further use of chemical weapons shows that we have learned nothing from Iraq, and that America continues to seek control over the Middle East for our own purposes. 

Obama is saying, correctly, that some people think he has been too weak in Syria, and some people think he has been too aggressive. There is absolutely no contradiction here. People have different opinions about his policy. But then Obama segues directly into saying that it is a contradiction, before offering up the following: 

In this way, the situation in Syria mirrors a contradiction that has persisted in the region for decades: the United States is chastised for meddling in the region, and accused of having a hand in all manner of conspiracy; at the same time, the United States is blamed for failing to do enough to solve the region’s problems, and for showing indifference toward suffering Muslim populations.

There are several problems with this example, but the central one is that there is nothing hypocritical about it. There is no contradiction. Some people think the United States has meddled in the Middle East and supported unsavory regimes, and even aided conspiracies in the region. Other people think the United States should do more to help suffering Muslims. How do these two things contradict one another in any way? Moreover, is Obama arguing that the same groups of people are arguing both things, and are therefore hypocritical? Or is he saying, as usual, that the United States has found a nice middle ground between doing too little and doing too much? And what does this have to do with Syria?

My guess is this: Obama is so wedded to the idea of being the sensible leader that he simply cannot resist these formulations, even when they don't really make sense. He said something similar in the case of Egypt, when he noted that the United States was being accused of supporting the coup and propping up the Muslim Brotherhood. Oddly, he seemed to take glee in pointing this out. I don't think it was because he wanted to score debating points; rather, I think it somehow fortified his self-image as the man who has found a comfortable place away from the extremes. (Of course, the fact that the United States is accused of contradictory things says nothing about Obama's actual Egypt policy, and whether it is "in the middle.") No matter: This tendency remains his greatest rhetorical weakness.