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Robinson: The weight on Obama's shoulders

  • (MICHAEL OSBUN / Tribune Media Serivces)

President Barack Obama's words from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial were bound to be criticized as underwhelming, no matter what he said. The context, though, was nothing short of mind-blowing.

It was a classic no-win situation: On Wednesday, at the 50th anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington, Obama stood where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered one of the greatest speeches in the nation's history. No one could possibly measure up. It was wise not to try.

Instead of trying to match King's poetic cadences and imagery, Obama paid homage to the “I Have a Dream” speech by echoing some of King's rhetorical devices and using some of the same biblical references. The bulk of the speech, though, was vintage Obama, and anyone unfamiliar with his analysis of the social and economic challenges we face has not been paying attention.

But the context: As Obama spoke, everyone in the crowd knew that he must have been preoccupied with events halfway around the world. Faced with compelling evidence that the government of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad had shelled a Damascus suburb with chemical weapons, killing hundreds, Obama had spent the past week laying the groundwork for a punitive military strike.

He had much to ponder. Would an attack have sufficient international support? Is it possible to design a bombing campaign that would punish Assad's thuggish regime without tipping the civil war in favor of Islamist rebel forces? Does military action draw the United States into a conflict that Obama's every instinct tells him we should avoid? Once we start firing missiles, how do we stop?

I couldn't watch Obama's speech without thinking of the aircraft carriers that were moving because he ordered them to, the diplomats he had mobilized around the globe to line up international support, the intelligence analysts he was grilling and re-grilling in an attempt to avoid the kind of mistake his predecessor made in Iraq.

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