President Obama has one more vitally important job to do as he moves toward what is likely to be military action in Syria: selling the mission to the American people.
White House officials have made clear that Obama has been coordinating with allies around the world and members of Congress on what he might do to punish the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons against rebel forces and civilians. Secretary of State John Kerry says the use of those weapons is "undeniable," and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says the U.S. military is ready to carry out whatever mission the commander in chief orders.
But the American people are not convinced. Polls indicate deep skepticism about U.S. intervention in Syria, so Obama has a lot of explaining to do.
"Any U.S. military action could bring serious consequences or further escalation," said Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "The president should be making the case to the American public, and his administration should come to Congress to explain their plans. The consequences are too great for Congress to be brushed aside."
Royce added in a statement: "The Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons is beyond the pale. The United States has deep national security interests in Syria and the region. The president has said this is a 'redline.' He is now proposing to put action behind his words."
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told reporters in an email: "Before any action is taken regarding Syria, it is imperative that President Obama make the case to the American people and consult with Congress. He needs to explain what vital national interests are at stake and should put forth a detailed plan with clear objectives and an estimated cost for achieving those objectives."
But making the case for military action might not come naturally to Obama. He is proud that he is keeping his campaign promises to extract the United States from the two wars that he inherited – in Afghanistan and Iraq. His advisers say his reputation as a peacemaker is very important to him. Yet he finds himself in a position where he seems to be gravitating toward use of military force in the Middle East, just as his much-criticized predecessor George W. Bush and Bush's father, President George H.W. Bush, did.
It's likely that if Obama does order a military mission, he will get some support from U.S. allies such as the United Kingdom, Canada and France. But formal backing from the United Nations is unlikely because Russia, a longtime ally of Syria, seems inclined to block such an endorsement in the Security Council. Chinese officials have also opposed a U.S. military strike, arguing that the American claim about the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime sounds suspiciously like the rationale for the Iraq war used by George W. Bush. Bush said Iraq had weapons of mass destruction but such weapons were never found.
The United States has yet to document that the Assad regime is responsible for the chemical attacks that are being cited by U.S. officials as the reason for military action. U.S. officials say this evidence will be released soon.
American officials said that any military action would not be designed to achieve "regime change," and would be very limited, probably involving the use of unmanned cruise missiles to attack military targets. Chemical weapons storage sites would probably be off limits because the toxic chemicals could be spread into the environment, injuring or killing civilians, or anti-Assad fighters could take some chemical weapons from the damaged sites for their own use.
In the end, American strikes may restrict the use of such horrendous weapons in Syria, but they may not do much to stop the Syrian civil war. And they could inflame the region and cause more headaches for the United States and Israel, critics say.
Every option has its disadvantages, adding to the challenge Obama faces as he prepares to explain himself to the American people.
- Syria Accuses Kerry of Lying, Promises to Defend Itself
- Vote: Should the U.S. Intervene in Syria?
- Syria Says It Will Defend Itself Against U.S. Attack
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com and "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." Ken Walsh can be reached at email@example.com and on Facebook and Twitter.