Obama in the Box

Why the president’s arguments for striking Syria are constraining his ability to strike Syria.  

President Barack Obama arrives for an official welcome of G20 heads of state and government, heads of invited states and international organizations at the G20 summit on September 5, 2013 in St. Petersburg, Russia.
President Obama arrives for the G20 summit on Sept 5, 2013. At a press conference on Friday, the president explained that Syria’s chemical weapons use was not enough of a direct threat to cause him to act without congressional approval.

Photo by Anton Denisov/Host Photo Agency via Getty Images

President Obama is on the verge of creating a new foreign policy dictum: A national security threat requiring military action that cannot be justified without congressional approval isn’t enough of a national security threat to get congressional approval. This isn’t an iron clad truth yet, but as the president faces enormous hurdles convincing Congress to support his action in Syria, it defines the fix he is in.

At his press conference on Friday, the president explained that Syria’s chemical weapons use was not enough of a direct threat to cause him to act without congressional approval. “I put it before Congress because I could not honestly claim that the threat posed by Assad’s use of chemical weapons on innocent civilians and women and children posed an imminent, direct threat to the United States.” By making that admission, the president highlighted the political problem he faces winning support for his mission. According to polls, the biggest fear people have about a U.S. strike on Syria is that it will lead to retaliation and wider war. There is no way to help people put away that fear. Repeating the words “limited,” “targeted,” and “no boots on the ground” is not working. For good reason: War is messy. If people aren’t going to have their fears allayed, they’re going to have to swallow hard and get over them. The most effective way for the president to make that happen is to convince people that they are in danger. They might be willing to endure the risks associated with hitting Syria if they thought inaction would put them at greater risk. But President Obama has conceded that the threat is not so immediate. Otherwise, he would have already acted.

Since the president can’t use the most powerful argument, he and his advisers are offering an amalgamated case—one part national security threat, one part emotional outrage at the indiscriminate gassing of children, a dash of fear over lost U.S. credibility, and a smidgen of patriotism. The problem is that every administration argument can be flipped on its head by reluctant lawmakers. When they are asked to consider how Iran will react if the United States doesn’t act, they respond that they worry about Iran’s retaliation if the United States does. What if the use of these weapons is not checked and they are used on America some day? OK, but what if an attack sparks their use on Americans? A failure to hold Assad accountable will show Iran that the United States is not serious about stopping its nuclear program. But a disastrous U.S. bombing mission in Syria will only further sap the U.S. public’s will to act, making any future action against Iran harder to muster. 

Sunday night the president dropped in on the dinner Vice President Joe Biden was having with  a handful of senators to make the Syria case. He is also making a rare trip to the hill this week. Members of Congress will get private briefings from top officials. An administration aide said that minds will start changing once members of Congress sit across from someone like Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and receive the briefings in person. Perhaps, but will all of this attention help reluctant lawmakers with their constituents? They don’t just need convincing, they need to be armed with arguments and explanations for those people who are lighting up their phones. When I told a staffer in Rep. Frank Wolf’s office that the calls were 100-to-1 against striking Syria in another congressional office, the aide said, “Here they are about 800-to-1.” The administration may be able to get lawmakers to yes, but can they get them to a yes that is durable enough for them to take back home. 

This is why the arguments whispered off the record or in the corridors of Congress would seem less powerful than normal. Democrats who are cajoled, vote for the mission or it will ruin the Obama presidency, a sentiment captured this morning by Politico, might feel political sympathy but it’s not an argument lawmakers can replay to their constituents at the coffee shop. Many on the pro-action side are banking on pressure from the pro-Israel lobby, but to get lawmakers to overcome public pressure at home, AIPAC is going to have to apply even greater pressure. Are they going to make support of this strike a condition for their future support? Will they label a member of Congress who has been pro-Israel all along a false friend because of this vote? Those are the only kind of counterpressures that would seem necessary to match constituent reluctance. Or, are AIPAC officials going to make their case—in part because the White House asked for their support—but save their real pressure for the vote that will come some day on action against Iran. 

The president already starts with a political deficit. As Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report points out, Obama is less popular in general and has less public support in particular for this action than his predecessors had before previous military actions. Mostly voters are offering a primal “no,” but there are also at least 18 distinct public arguments against intervention he has to rebut. There are plenty of other private arguments as well. One foreign policy hawk trying to lobby for the attack said a member of Congress expressed support for the mission, but was likely to vote against it because he didn’t trust the president to execute it properly. Another hurdle is that the military is privately conveying to lawmakers how reluctant they are. (Though it’s hardly that private.) An official from George W. Bush’s administration who supports action says Gen. Martin Dempsy, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared so reluctant during his congressional testimony that “he looked like a hostage.” 

The most emotional case the administration can make is the moral one. The administration leaked new footage showing the carnage after the attack of Aug. 21. The president talked about the children gassed during his press conference Friday and United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power bolstered her case for intervention with a gut-wrenching story of a father agonizing over the loss of his two children: “His girls had not yet been shrouded, they were still dressed in the pink shorts and leggings of little girls. The father lifted their lifeless bodies, cradled them, and cried out “Wake up … What would I do without you? … How do I stand this pain?”

The appeals rest on a connection administration officials present as if it is a mathematical certainty. Given this atrocity, action must necessarily follow. That was White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough’s argument on the Sunday shows. Time and again, McDonough said that members of Congress had not quibbled with the evidence that these weapons were used. If you don’t quibble with X, then Y must follow. That’s also the logic behind the administration’s case that reluctance will melt once members see classified material showing Assad was responsible for the attack. But members of Congress don’t appear to embrace the X leads to Y inevitability. Poll after poll shows that this is where the country is, too. The latest CNN/ORC International survey shows that 8 in 10 Americans believe that the Assad regime used chemical weapons, but 7 in 10 believe that it is not in America’s national interest to get involved. (It’s also true that most of the international community doesn’t sign up for this math either, despite claims that this is an international norm—words the president should probably not use in his Tuesday night speech as it, almost by its very usage, feels disconnected from the idea of an immediate national security threat). 

Just because the president has downplayed the immediate national security threat that doesn’t mean there is no such threat. “If Congress wants to make sure that the Iranians, Hezbollah, and others understand that you cannot have greater operating space to pursue weapons of mass destruction like the nuclear program in Iran, then they have to vote yes for this resolution,” said McDonough on Face the Nation. In recent days, administration officials have also been making a more direct link between Syria and American cities. An administration official made a case that went like this: If the United States doesn’t respond, the prohibition against chemical weapons will get looser and that will lead to proliferation, which will lead to chemical weapons getting into the hands of terrorists who can use them here against U.S. citizens. McDonough argued on Meet the Press that the proliferation of such weapons would put U.S. troops in danger in future military conflicts. On the same program, David Axelrod put it in more stark terms. “The problem is it’s not our problem until it’s our problem. So if you don’t accept the moral argument, how about the practical argument that we live in a very small world now and if these weapons proliferate, that ultimately it washes up on our shores? We’ve seen that in a tragic way already. We need to contain this. And I think that is a fundamental point the president has to make.”

Will the president go this far Tuesday night? The argument is a stretch, but you can see its appeal. It scares people, which might get them to support this mission. But it has the ring of threat inflation—something the American public has grown conditioned against after the Iraq war. Remember Condoleezza Rice talking about a mushroom cloud that might appear if Saddam Hussein were not stopped. President Obama is careful with his words. When he makes a case, he speaks of balancing competing pressures and acknowledges the honesty of the other side’s view. He doesn’t get emotional or go for the easy ploy. His language usually contains this kind of detachment: “I want people to understand that gassing innocent people, delivering chemical weapons against children is not something we do. It’s prohibited in active wars between countries. We certainly don’t do it against kids. And we’ve got to stand up for that principle.”

That’s just another constraint on this president who faces a host of contradictions as he prepares to address the nation. No matter what room in the White House President Obama chooses to give his national address Tuesday night, it will be from within a box.