Frame Game

What Obama Really Thinks About Syria

The president’s TV interviews reveal the naked truths behind his posturing.

President Barack Obama speaking with CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley about Syria, Sept. 9, 2013

Photo by CBS News via Getty Images

Monday afternoon, President Obama sat for six interviews about Syria, one with each of the major U.S. TV networks. He tried to deliver the same talking points each time: that chemical weapons are “indiscriminate,” that the global ban on them “protects our troops,” that Bashar al-Assad’s power to hurt the U.S. isn’t “significant,” and that Russian and Syrian talk of putting Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles under external control in order to avert a U.S. strike is the result of our “credible military threat.” But the interviewers’ questions pushed Obama beyond his message. Here are the 10 most interesting things he asserted, implied, or revealed.

1. No air campaign. Obama has repeatedly ruled out U.S. ground forces. But in his interview with CBS, he indicated that his plan also excluded “a long air campaign.”

2. His military plan is tailored to avoid retaliation from Iran or Hezbollah. “Our intelligence, I think, is very clear that they would not try to escalate a war with us over limited strikes to deal with this chemical weapon issue,” Obama told CBS. To PBS, he added, “For us to take a limited proportional although significant strike on Assad’s capabilities to degrade them, I don’t think would prompt [Iran or Hezbollah] to get involved.” Obama implied that Assad is “under pressure” from Iran as well as Russia to control his chemical weapons and avert a U.S. strike.

3. No strike without a U.S. consensus. “For me, the president, to act without consensus in a situation where there’s not a direct imminent threat to the homeland or interest around the world” is “not the kind of precedent I want to set,” Obama told NBC. That’s an extremely high bar.

4. Majority support may be unattainable. Obama told PBS, “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 or attack against us.” This is more than a concession that persuasion will take time. It’s a concession that most Americans probably will never support a strike. Combined with the “consensus” standard, it makes a strike impossible.

5. Public opinion trumps national interests. When asked whether he would strike Syria without congressional support, Obama told ABC: “Strikes may be less effective if I don’t have congressional support and if the American people don’t recognize why we’re doing this. So I haven’t made a final determination in terms of what next steps would be.” On NBC, he said he would lobby Congress, deliver a TV address Tuesday night, and “I’ll evaluate after that whether or not we feel strongly enough about this that we’re willing to move forward. … I’ve made my decision about what I think is best for America’s national interests, but this is one where I think it’s important for me to pay close attention to what Congress and the American people say.” That sounds like a bald admission that he’s willing to let public opinion override national interests.

6. Russia’s approach, if serious, would be far more effective than a U.S. strike. On PBS, Obama warned that even if Assad stopped using Syria’s chemical weapons, “the more dangerous and unsavory members of the opposition” might use those weapons later or pass them to terrorists. When CNN’s Wolf Blitzer suggested that a U.N. proposal to control and destroy these weapons was “a lot better than deterring” Assad from using them, Obama replied, “Absolutely.” Obama isn’t just conceding that a nonviolent solution would kill fewer people. He’s conceding that such a solution would more effectively prevent future use of chemical weapons.

7. Removal of Syria’s stockpiles isn’t necessary. When Blitzer asked what Assad “must do to avert a U.S. military strike,” Obama said non-use of chemical weapons must be ensured “potentially by getting them out of there,” but “at minimum” by putting them under “international control.” Translation: The stockpiles can remain within Syria.

8. Congress and the U.S. public are pawns in a diplomatic game. Obama told at least three interviewers that Americans must “keep the pressure on” militarily in order to make Syria and Russia accept effective weapons controls. On CNN, he explained:

“We don’t want just a stalling or delaying tactic to put off the pressure that we have on there right now. We have to maintain this pressure, which is why I will still be speaking to the nation tomorrow about why I think this is so important. … If we don’t maintain and move forward with a credible threat of military pressure, I do not think we will actually get the kind of agreement I would like to see.”

In other words, Obama wants you to support military action, not because it’s a good idea, but because your support will help him cut a better deal.

9. Asking Congress for support was part of the game. “There will be time during the course of the debates here in United States for the international community, the Russians and the Syrians, to work with us to see is there a way to resolve this,” Obama told ABC. When Fox’s Chris Wallace asked Obama whether he would “delay a congressional vote” to see what becomes of the Russian proposal, Obama replied: “There’s a reason why I slowed this thing down to allow for a congressional debate.” Democracy was only “part” of the reason, Obama began. Wallace cut off Obama, blowing the interview. I’m pretty sure Obama was about to say that he had gone to Congress in part to give Syria and its allies a chance to come up with a better alternative. Which is probably a whitewash, but certainly intriguing.

10. We have all day. Obama told Wallace he was “confident about our ability to thoroughly examine” nonviolent alternatives, since the Joint Chiefs of Staff have “assured me that when I make a decision to launch a strike, they can do it and still be effective, whether it’s today, tomorrow or a month from now.” So if Russia and Syria are just stalling, we can hit Assad just as hard later. That might be true militarily. But it’s hard to take that threat seriously from a president who has all but given up politically.

William Saletan’s latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: