Two weeks of administration efforts — public statements, private meetings with members of Congress, talks with international leaders and nonstop commentary on television — have done little to change public attitudes or, it would appear, the lack of support in Congress for military action.
With the surprise initiative to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control, triggered by Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s offhand comment in London on Monday and quickly seized upon by Russia and Syria and now the United Nations, the president’s challenge Tuesday night looks even more complicated than it did.
As he addresses the nation, Obama must sound convincing about the need for and efficacy of a military strike to punish Syria for its use of those chemical weapons, however reluctant he, the public and a preponderance of lawmakers may be about another military engagement in the Middle East.
At the same time, he must sound both open to and skeptical toward the new diplomatic track as he and his advisers weigh whether this is truly serious and practically possible or nothing more than a cynical attempt by Syria and Russia to buy time for Bashar al-Assad as he wages a murderous civil war that has killed more than 100,000 of his own people.
Obama is both attempting to rally Congress to support military action while assuring the public that he will avoid launching strikes if at all possible. Can he be both an antiwar politician, which is part of his self-identity, and a resolute commander in chief trying to rally the nation to express its moral outrage through a targeted but still risky military strike?
Other recent presidents have not gone before the nation or put a resolution before Congress in quite such a conflicted environment.
When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, former president George H.W. Bush spent months building an international coalition before he took his case to Congress early in 1991. As Saddam Hussein tried to buy time by extending the diplomatic maneuvering at the United Nations, Bush set a deadline, and soon after it expired, he launched air strikes and then a ground invasion that drove the Iraqi forces out of Kuwait.
Former president George W. Bush wanted little to do with diplomacy or U.N. chemical weapons inspectors as he led the country into war with Iraq in 2003 under what turned out to be false pretenses about the existence of weapons of mass destruction. His course had long been set. He got an early authorization from Congress, which he took as a free hand to act, and from then on was impatient with efforts to slow him down.
Those were both wars that involved hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops on the ground in the Middle East. What Obama is seeking militarily is far less, though exactly how sustained or punishing the attacks would be have not been clear. The administration’s language has been confusing on this as well. Obama insisted to NBC’s Savannah Guthrie during a round of network interviews on Monday that “the United States does not do pinpricks.” That came hours after Kerry had described the planned military action as “unbelievably small.”
The president’s and Kerry’s comments reflect the contradictory messaging that has bedeviled the administration ever since Syria crossed the president’s red line with its chemical weapons attack.
Obama is appealing to doves in his own party, and public exhaustion with war generally, by stressing the limited nature of the response. At the same time, he is appealing to those who accept the moral case for action but doubt that limited strikes will have any material effect on Assad by insisting that the military action would be robust enough to act as a deterrent.
Now he will be required to emphasize his commitment to serious diplomacy, with the announcement Tuesday morning that the United States, in concert with France and Britain, would pursue an initiative at the United Nations that could lead to a Security Council resolution that would take chemical weapons out of Assad’s power.
He and others argue that this latest diplomatic initiative could not have happened without the credible threat of military action. But balancing the two, in the face of congressional resistance, will continue to challenge him.
Obama has gotten to this point in ways that have left even his Democratic allies baffled and unhappy, which raises questions about his strategy from here forward. As he goes before the television cameras Tuesday night, there are still many unknowns about the path ahead. His speech should give some further indication of the degree to which he is conflicted.
It has been remarked before that Obama has been lucky as a politician. This may be one more example. With Obama facing a potential rejection from Congress of his request for authorization to strike, the diplomatic channel has suddenly provided an opening both to delay any vote on Capitol Hill and to resolve this particular problem peacefully. But as the past two weeks have shown, there is no straight line ahead.