Syria: Why Obama needs to give two speeches in one

Obama's address on Syria was meant to build support for votes in Congress authorizing force. But with diplomacy now front and center, Obama has to explain his reasons for embracing both.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Barack Obama walks along the West Wing Colonnade toward the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, ahead of his daily briefing. Obama will deliver a speech on Syria from the East Room in an address to the national this evening.

If President Obama could have a do-over, he probably would not be giving an address to the nation Tuesday night on Syria.

After all, the head-snapping news of the last 24 hours – a shift in the action to the United Nations, to hash out a Russian proposal to place Syrian chemical weapons under international control – has put the possibility of US military strikes in Syria on hold. Presidents like to save major addresses for rare occasions.

Mr. Obama’s speech was meant to build public support for congressional votes – in the Senate this week, the House next week – authorizing military action aimed at degrading Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities, after the Assad regime’s alleged sarin gas attack Aug. 21 on its own people. Now those congressional votes are on hold.

Obama, too, may well have dodged a bullet: Support both in the public and in Congress was heading south. Public opinion against the strikes now runs 2-to-1 against. Obama himself acknowledged in his spate of network TV interviews Monday that he wasn’t confident he had the votes in Congress.

Suddenly, the heat is off. The president is no longer on the verge of being rebuffed by Congress, including by many members of his own party. But Obama’s 9 p.m. Eastern speech is still on. What does he say?

“I think he gives two speeches in one,” says Peter Fenn, a Democratic communications specialist. “One would be, ‘Here’s why [what Syria did] is so horrendous and why the international community can’t stand for it, and why we’re calling for military action.’ The next would be, ‘We’re always ready to sit down around a table and see if we can find another alternative.’ ”

But, Mr. Fenn adds, Obama has to make clear he’s got his eyes wide open in dealing with his adversaries, Syria and its patron Russia. Part of his message has to be, “We’re not going to be played by these guys,” Fenn says.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who is credited with sparking the latest diplomatic gambit (perhaps inadvertently) with an off-hand comment on Monday, told a House panel Tuesday that the US is open to the Russian proposal, but that “it cannot be a delay tactic.”

Still, after some early hesitance, the US has embraced the shift in action to the United Nations, where language is being crafted on a statement aimed at carrying out the proposal to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control. Russia is insisting that  military strikes stay off the table.

But even if UN-sanctioned military strikes remain out of bounds for the US, Obama is likely to remind Americans that, as president, he reserves the right to use military force even without the UN or congressional approval. Part of his calculation, he said in his Monday interviews, is that the threat of force is what drove Syria and Russia to embrace Kerry’s proposal – and thus that threat needs to remain operative.

When asked by NBC News’ Savannah Guthrie whether he would go ahead with strikes on Syria anyway, even without congressional approval, he said he might. And so even though force is now on the back burner, Obama is likely to use Tuesday's speech to explain to Americans why he believes a war-weary nation should be willing to launch limited strikes against Syria over its chemical weapons use.

The reasons, Obama and his surrogates have said, are foremost moral. They emphasize that of the more than 1,400 Syrian civilians killed in the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack, some 400 were children.

“If Obama is going to deliver a speech that matters, he must answer some basic questions about the Syrian intervention,” Princeton historian and public policy professor Julian Zelizer writes at CNN.com.

Those questions mostly center on “why” – why get involved in Syria’s civil war, what is the mission, and is the intelligence sound? Memories of the Iraq war’s launch in 2003, based on faulty intelligence, are still fresh for many Americans.

That many Americans are confused about the Syria situation and why the US should get involved is reflected in the polls. Obama has an opportunity Tuesday night, if Americans choose to tune in, to provide some answers. But the new diplomatic twist has only made his task more complicated.

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