To sell Syria, Obama chose political science over scare tactics. That’s a big deal.

September 11, 2013

International norms are not sexy. Limited, off-shore strikes are not satisfying. And the idea of modestly punishing a murderous dictator, but leaving him in office because toppling him outright could actually make things worse, is not something that makes Americans feel like waving Old Glory in the air.

President Obama surely knows all this about the case he's consistently made for launching a military strike against Syria: that it would uphold international norms against the use of chemical weapons but stop short of steering the course of Syria's two-year civil war. He must know that his case is really complicated and abstract. It relies on international relations theory and concepts of constraining warfare. It's cerebral, and cerebral doesn't sell.

Yet, when Obama addressed the nation on Tuesday night to explain his thinking, he barely budged from his case, in all its unsellable complexity. Sure, he did his best to use the language of moral imperative and of strategic interest, but the formulation at the sentence- and paragraph-level was all about using limited military force to uphold international norms of behavior. "The purpose of a strike would be to deter Assad from using chemical weapons and make clear to the world we will not tolerate their use," he said.

Here's why that's a big deal: Obama knows that he could really use a boost in public support for his plan. He surely had to understand that the dry, analytical approach he took last night would not be the best way to generate that boost (and, judging by the insta-polls, it doesn't seem to have done wonders for public opinion). But he did it anyway, sticking to the unsatisfying truth, going way out of his way to avoid adopting a tactic that presidents have used for years to rally public support for international military action: threat inflation.

There are few more reliable ways to sell Americans on military action than to tell them that they're in danger. That's not a dig on Americans; people of all nationalities are naturally self-interested. Perhaps that was a lesson Obama learned in the Iraq War debacle, when the Bush administration's over-sell of Iraq's alleged threat made the public easier to convince but also badly distorted the debate in ways that still impact U.S. credibility. It's still much easier to argue that the United States has to fight the enemy abroad so it doesn't have to defend against them at home. And, almost 12 years to the day after September 11, 2001, it would have been awfully convenient for Obama to tell Americans that strikes are necessary to prevent terrorism.

But Obama didn't say any of that, even though the political consequences of threat-inflation have proven low in American politics and the tactic often seems to work. Obama himself has not been afraid to refer to direct threats to national security when defending, for example, drone strikes and NSA surveillance. But in making the case for Syria, not only did he mostly demur from following that time-worn path, he actually -- amazingly --  went out of his way to argue that Syria is not an immediate national security threat to the United States or even Israel:

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. 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 escalation that would lead to his demise. And our ally, Israel, can defend itself with overwhelming force, as well as the unshakeable support of the United States of America.

That's a remarkable thing for a president to say while making the case for attacking Syria.

Obama did offer some rationales for strikes that sounded a bit more dubious, and wandered off his narrow, well-defined but politically unpalatable case for upholding international norms. He warned that leaving Assad unpunished could "embolden Assad’s ally, Iran" in its nuclear program – a bit of a stretch, given that Iran itself seems unhappy with Syria's apparent use of chemical weapons. Still, the president largely resisted exaggerating the risks of inaction or the benefits of action, and that's very unusual.

Many observers have remarked that Obama's decision to defer part of the decision on strikes to Congress could signal a surrender of some of the many executive national security powers that the president has accrued since 2001. His speech last night seemed like a similar, and potentially significant, concession: a presidential disavowal of the powerful, but dangerous and often counterproductive, tool of threat-inflation. If that precedent holds, American foreign policy will be better off for it.

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