Obama administration’s message on Syria is muddled

The Post's Sean Sullivan distills the president's six TV network interviews Monday night and offers the key takeaways. (Nicki DeMarco, Tom LeGro and Sean Sullivan/The Washington Post)
September 9, 2013

Speaking Monday in London, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said that a U.S. military strike on Syria would constitute an “unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.”

Later at the White House, President Obama insisted that any such action would be significant. “The U.S. does not do pinpricks,” he told an NBC News interviewer. “Our military is the greatest the world has ever known.”

The dueling statements underscored the administration’s muddled message on Syria. The confusion has complicated Obama’s effort to persuade a reluctant Congress and American public to support a strike against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for its alleged use of chemical weapons to kill more than 1,400 civilians outside Damascus last month.

Over the past 10 days, Obama and his aides have offered varied and often shifting justifications for military action against Syria, and differing accounts of what such an intervention would look like.

Administration officials have said that the world cannot turn away while a tyrant gasses children but stressed that their war plans don’t involve expelling Assad from power. They’ve said that strikes could hurt the regime’s fighting capacity in its civil war — perhaps tipping the balance of power — but that they are intended only to degrade its ability to use chemical weapons.

Where Congress stands on Syria

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See all six of Obama’s interviews about Syria.

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Some Republicans say the convoluted messageshave left them with little confidence in Obama’s plans.

“There’s no clarity, there’s no focus,” Rep. John Abney Culberson (Tex.), who opposes military action, told reporters recently. “The president’s position is so wobbly and uncertain, I’m not even clear on what he’s trying to do.”

In six television interviews Monday, Obama acknowledged that he cannot be certain that the strikes would be as limited and as powerful as predicted. But he said it’s critical for the United States to hold Assad accountable and send a global message that the use of poison gas as a weapon of war will not be tolerated.

“Nothing is 100 percent guaranteed in life,” he said. “But I think it’s fair to say that our military is outstanding, our intelligence is outstanding, and we have shown ourselves capable of taking precision strikes on military installations in ways that would degrade Assad’s capabilities to deliver chemical weapons.”

Since surprising aides on Aug. 31 by announcing that he would seek congressional authorization for a strike, Obama and his team have mounted a massive public relations campaign — testifying in Congress, organizing private briefings and dinners with lawmakers, holding conference calls and blanketing the news media.

Obama will have his best and final chance to make his case in a prime-time address to the nation on Tuesday night. If he succeeds, it will be a major victory, validating his argument that force is necessary and his decision to make Congress a partner in the process. Failure would be a stinging setback for his presidency.

On Monday, Obama made it clear that he doesn’t think the odds of approval are high.

“I wouldn’t say I’m confident” that Congress will pass a resolution authorizing a strike, he told NBC News. Last week, he said he was.

The president also acknowledged that it will be hard to get most Americans on his side. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Monday found Americans moving in the reverse direction, with 64 percent opposed to military action in Syria.

“I’m not sure that we’re ever going to get a majority of the American people — after over a decade of war, after what happened in Iraq — to say that any military action, particularly in the Middle East, makes sense in the absence of some direct threat,” Obama told PBS, adding first lady Michelle Obama to the list of skeptics. “And that’s understandable. You know, if you talk to my own family members, or Michelle’s, you know, they’re very wary and suspicious of any action.”

The president said in Monday’s interviews that his address will focus on making the case for military action, but he also said he would welcome a diplomatic deal that could avert a strike.

Hours after Kerry floated the idea during his remarks in London on Monday, Russia proposed that Assad turn over his chemical weapons stockpile to international overseers to avoid military action by the United States.

Obama told interviewers that he had discussed the idea with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin last week and called it a potentially “significant breakthrough.” At the same time, however, he said it’s important “to be skeptical, because this is not how we’ve seen them operate.”

Obama gave mixed signals about the possible timing for military action. He told Fox News Channel that it’s crucial “not to let the, you know, the pedal off the metal when it comes to making sure they understand that we mean what we say about these international bans on chemical weapons” and that he wants Congress to continue to move toward agreement.

But, he added, “there is no expectation . . . that Congress would be finished with its deliberations over the next week or so.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) had planned to start a test vote on a resolution Wednesday but decided late Monday to delay those plans.

Colin Kahl, a Georgetown University professor who focused on Middle East policy at the Pentagon earlier in Obama’s tenure, said administration officials have a tough challenge navigating all the dueling interests.

“They don’t want to go in too hot, engaging in a civil war, because that spooks people on the left and has no public support,” he said. “But they also don’t want to go in too cold, in the sense that striking in a way that’s ineffective and doesn’t degrade Assad’s capabilities enough.

“They have to find some sweet spot in the middle, and that’s hard,” Kahl said. “It’s hard to do operationally, and it’s hard to do rhetorically.”

Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.

Zachary A. Goldfarb is policy editor at The Washington Post.
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