Why Obama's old bag of tricks won't persuade Congress, Americans on Syria
No political spin can negate the political risk associated with supporting intervention in Syria. As Obama makes his case for military strikes to Congress and the American people, he should offer straight talk on why he thinks his policy is in the long-term interest of the country.
In the Syria debate, President Obama's toughest opponent is State Senator Barack Obama. In 2002, when he was an Illinois legislator, he made a speech against the Iraq War. Military action did not make sense, he said, because Saddam Hussein posed “no imminent and direct threat to the United States or to his neighbors,” and President Bush was acting “without a clear rationale and without strong international support.”Skip to next paragraph
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Not only does the speech supply opponents of a Syria attack with quotable lines, it also serves as a reminder that a vote for military action in Syria carries huge political risk while a vote against it can become a political asset.
This is why Mr. Obama cannot rely on political spin (and his campaign heavyweights) to make his case for strikes in Syria to Congress and the American people. Instead, he must make a strong strategic and moral argument that military action in Syria best serves America’s long-term interests and security.
Indeed, from a purely political viewpoint, lawmakers would find greater appeal in arguments for the other side. One model is Obama's own 2002 speech, which helped him draw support from antiwar activists during the 2008 Democratic nomination contest. That speech enabled him to say repeatedly, "I am the only candidate who opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning." He drew a sharp contrast with Hillary Rodham Clinton, who had voted for the war as a US senator from New York. He asked: “Who got the single most important foreign policy decision since the end of the cold war right, and who got it wrong?”
If the US hits Syria, and if the consequences are bad, no politician would want to be stuck on the wrong side of such a question. As then-Sen. Joseph Biden warned in 1995, “limited” military action can quickly get out of hand: “The framers undoubtedly knew that reprisals or imperfect wars could lead to general or all-out wars.”
But suppose that a military strike goes well, and has beneficial effects such as deterring further use of chemical weapons. In that case, would the political advantage shift from the doves to the hawks? Probably not.
Although activists and voters punish political leaders for military disaster, they seldom reward them for military success.
In 1945, Harry Truman brought the Second World War to a victorious close. In 1946, voters stripped his party of their majorities in Congress. In 1991, George H.W. Bush led the nation to a stunning victory in the Gulf War. In 1992, he lost the presidency with the lowest vote share of any sitting president in 80 years. In 2011, Obama himself ordered the successful raid on Osama bin Laden. His approval rating went up by a few points for a few weeks, then settled back down.
Now consider the political consequences of doing nothing. If the US does not attack Syria, it’s possible that little will change, at least in the short run. That kind of anticlimax might embarrass the administration, but otherwise would scarcely ripple the domestic political waters.