THE TRUST-US FACTOR
The country has not been shown proof that President Bashar Assad or his inner circle was behind the chemical attack that crossed Obama's "red line" for action. So Americans have been left to take it on faith — or not — that the U.S. has the goods on Assad but can't share this sensitive intelligence. Or that the case is persuasive enough even absent proof.
"They don't know what I know," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said of the public.
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough has conceded he could not offer "irrefutable, beyond-a-reasonable-doubt evidence" that Assad's government was behind the attack, because he said intelligence doesn't work that way. Instead, a "common-sense test" suggests Assad was to blame, he said.
It's clear that presidential credibility is a problem in this debate. But which president? Obama, George W. Bush, or both?
No one has forgotten the passionate, persuasive — and bogus — bill of particulars the Bush administration used to justify invading Iraq before it was discovered that Saddam Hussein did not possess weapons of mass destruction after all. Even among Obama's supporters, who trust him, there's a worry about being fooled again.
To sway opinion in Congress and the country, U.S. officials have emphasized the deaths of children in the Aug. 21 attack, shared graphic video with lawmakers and cited video and images that are in public circulation and are purported to show the aftermath of gassing. Without establishing who was behind the attack, these images prompted visceral outrage in Congress — one effective example of going for the gut.
"This is the indiscriminate, inconceivable horror of chemical weapons," Kerry told lawmakers. "This is what Assad did to his own people."
In recent days, though, The New York Times posted a video smuggled from Syria showing rebels executing seven captured Syrian soldiers and dumping their bodies in a well, in April 2012. Several subsequent acts of savagery by elements of the Syrian opposition have been similarly documented — and cited by critics of U.S. intervention to show that rogues are on both sides of the civil war.
"It's a powerful optic, and a bad one for Obama," Dezenhall said. "You want to help THESE guys?" The video feeds into the perception that Syria is "a mess that you can see your way into, but not out of, and that's top of mind right now."
Polsky, the Hunter College professor, likens this period to the aftermath of the Korean and Vietnam wars, one of intervention fatigue.
"The kind of intervention the American people will tolerate now is one of virtually no possibility of blowback, no possibility of American casualties, of generating attacks on Americans elsewhere," he said. "But that kind of intervention is unlikely, and that's putting it generously, unlikely to yield any meaningful results in Syria today. So you are largely reduced to the claim that American credibility would be damaged seriously by the failure to respond."
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