Writer and broadcaster

Barack Obama brings out his patchwork quilt of a speech. The Week.

THE East Room is the White House’s largest room. An erstwhile playroom, it was where John F Kennedy laid in state in 1963. And it was here, in the middle of the UK night (2am our time, 9pm theirs) and while anti-war protestors were being sold popcorn outside, that American president Barack Obama gave his address to the nation about what he’s going to do about Syria.

Up until 48 hours ago the content of this address was expected to be very different. Had Russian president Vladimir Putin not put on his shirt for a minute, come in from whatever outdoor pursuit he was pursuing and decided that he needed to help out Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad, this was predicted to be a call to arms by Obama.

Indeed, you could see where the darning took place in this patchwork quilt of a speech: a jarring hotchpotch of paisley peace ‘n’ homestead talk, mixed with the indisputably threatening patterns of military camouflage.

There were, understandably, rousing words about children dying which bookended Obama’s address – tellingly he mentioned children before the words “chemical weapons”. These were well-rehearsed, heartfelt remarks. No one can doubt Obama’s revulsion at what is going on in Syria.

But in between were sentences you could tell had been stitched in following his and Putin’s off-piste chat in St Petersburg last week. Which then saw Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, come up with a proposal on Monday for a more diplomatic approach to Assad.

Five minutes in, I thought Obama was about to say he was going for a military strike against Syria. But no! That was what he thought as commander in chief. As president of the world’s “oldest constitutional democracy” it was only right to take it to Congress.

But wait! Now Russia has suggested a plan that involves no blood other than Syrian being spilled. Where the Syrian leader can just round up his chemical weapons, keep all his other ones, allow the UN in to do a recce and everything can go back to how it was pre 21 August when Assad was just killing people using bombs and guns. So let’s wait! And see what happens.

Of course, Obama is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. Everybody is buying time. Except the dead and dying in Syria.

Everything Obama says is rehearsed. To think otherwise would be as ludicrous as imagining Putin at a Gay Pride march (other than as an effigy).

And he dresses impeccably. There is nothing about his appearance that in any way ever detracts from what he’s saying. But his hands do. Obama talks a lot with his hands.

And for much of that rehearsed “in the public record” stuff he used his left – dominant – hand. His “less conscious” hand didn’t get a starring role until a third of the way into the address, and then it was used emphatically when he warned of the consequences “if we fail to act” [against Assad] and when he talked about military action.

Obama is, I’m sure, at heart, a peace-loving man. He’s not full of gauche battle cries like George Bush was. But I’m not entirely sure, in this particular situation, that he is as anti military intervention as his speech writers make him out to be. Putin and Assad may yet come to learn that, as the president put it last night, the “US military does not do pinpricks”. ·

First published in The Week, on 11 September 2013.