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.”
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.
Let’s say, however, that the hawks are right and that American inaction emboldens the Syrian government to use more chemical weapons against its own people. That result would surely trigger a sea-change in public opinion, wouldn’t it?
Actually, there is little reason to think that it would. Voters do not pay much heed to what happens elsewhere in the world, unless it directly affects American lives and interests. In a 2012 poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 83 percent said that protecting American jobs should be an important policy goal. Only 28 percent said the same of protecting human rights. Former President Clinton has said that the biggest regret of his tenure was his failure to stop the Rwandan genocide, which took hundreds of thousands of lives. That failure had no political impact. Americans scarcely noticed.
Lawmakers may not read the bills, but they do read the tea leaves. They know that supporting military intervention offers little political advantage but carries serious risk. Conversely, opposing it offers both political safety and a chance of a considerable payoff.
In this respect, Syria is different from every other major issue that the president has brought before Congress. On matters such as health care and immigration, he has mobilized large constituencies with a material stake in backing the administration’s position. He and his team have been able to tell lawmakers that there would be at least some political benefit to taking their side. Not this time.
To make its case to lawmakers and the public, the White House has been leaning heavily on the old Obama campaign political brain trust: strategists David Axelrod and David Plouffe, former press secretary Robert Gibbs, and former deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter. Relying on the political spin of these players to sell his message on Syria is a bad mistake for the president. These operatives know all about back-room deals, sound bites, snarky attacks, and rousing emotional appeals – but this bag of tricks is useless to the president now.
In fact, it’s worse than useless. Voters have seen the magic show before, and they likely don’t think it’s appropriate in a matter of war and peace. Even worse, the involvement of old campaign hands merely reinforces GOP suspicions that the president has a hidden partisan agenda on Syria.
The president should hang up on the political operators. As he crafts his messages to Congress and the American people, he should listen exclusively to military officers and experts in national security. He has to adopt what Madison called “the mild voice of reason,” offering simple, straight talk on why he thinks his policy is in the long-term interest of the country.
That course of action is not easy. It goes against a lifetime of political habits. But it’s the difference between being an ambitious young Illinois politician and being president of the United States.
John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics and coauthor of “After Hope and Change: the 2012 Elections and American Politics.”