Credibility stakes high for Obama in Syria speech
At home and abroad, his word will be weighed
WASHINGTON — President Obama’s speech to the nation Tuesday night has turned into a defining moment for the remainder of his term. The outcome of his call for Congress to authorize military strikes against Syria could determine both his credibility on domestic issues and his power on the international stage, analysts said Monday.
The stakes remained high even in light of Monday’s development that Russia is pushing Syria to allow United Nations control of its alleged chemical weapons. In an interview with CBS, Obama said Monday night that any proposed diplomatic solution must be backed by the “credible military threat from the United States.”
With a possible diplomatic solution under discussion, congressional votes on the proposed authorization of force have been postponed. But Obama said he plans to go ahead with his speech outlining the rationale for action.
Obama’s advisers have said he will make the case to Congress and the American public that the “red line” he drew against the Syrian regime’s presumed use of chemical weapons is worth backing up with the threat of military force.
“If he loses, then clearly, his lame duck status probably starts more than a year earlier than normal,” said Elaine C. Kamarck, a Clinton administration veteran and now a senior scholar at the Brookings Institution. “Also if he loses, it’s difficult to say how the bad guys in the world, like North Korea and other places, interpret this.”
The task has been made much more difficult because Obama has seemed uncertain of his own course. He initially drew a hard line on chemical weapons and then, once convinced that the Syrian government had used them last month, spoke and acted as if a military strike were imminent.
But on the eve of a possible attack, Obama surprised the nation with the announcement that he would pull back and seek authorization from a Congress that has rarely cooperated with him.
Many members of Congress lined up against the president’s initial request, with lawmakers reporting an overwhelming negative response from constituents, in some cases 10 to 1 against a military strike. Obama gave little warning to the congressional leaders who might have helped him gain broader support, and has since had difficulty even within his own party.
“We should learn from history,” said Representative Tulsi Gabbard, a Hawaii Democrat and Iraq war veteran, in announcing her opposition Monday. “We cannot afford to be the world’s policeman.”
Obama has been caught between two principles that, in retrospect, seem destined to collide: that the world must act to punish Syria for crossing a moral boundary, and that the president must respect the will of the people, as reflected by Congress, in using military force.
The second principle will mean little to world leaders if Obama loses in Congress and chooses not to act, said John L. Esposito, a Middle East policy specialist at Georgetown University. They will see only weakness, undermining Obama’s ability to negotiate with Iran, Israel, and the Palestinians, among other nations, he said.
“I just don’t think that will wash in the international community,” Esposito said. “It will just be a sign that the US not only does not have the kind of leadership it used to have, but is also not willing to exercise that leadership.”
A bipartisan loss on an issue of this magnitude could also deeply imperil Obama’s power at home, just as he heads into tricky negotiations over budget issues and tries to revive a stalled immigration bill.
A CNN poll released Monday said that Obama’s foreign policy approval rating from Americans had reached an all-time low, with only 40 percent of respondents saying they think he has handled foreign affairs well.
The White House pursued a dual path on Monday, dispatching the president and his key advisers to make speeches and give interviews bolstering the case for force against Syria. Former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton and National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice both spoke about the need for a strong response to chemical weapons. Obama gave six national television interviews.
The potential diplomatic solution emerged after an offhanded comment by Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who said a strike could be avoided if Syria agreed to let the United Nations have control of his alleged chemical weapons.
“This has become a circus of weirdness,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University. “As it’s headed, I don’t see it as a textbook example of ‘what to do’ in the Naval War College.”
Still, Brinkley said Obama could emerge with an improbable victory, which could smooth over some of the missteps of the past few months. “You’re looking at a work in progress,” he said. “What if . . . we have this public debate and Russia is now having a proposal and the end game is maybe getting rid of these chemical weapons?”