President Barack Obama will face a daunting challenge Tuesday night when he faces the American people in prime time to ask for their support for a military strike against Syria: The war-weary electorate has heard his pitch before, and they’re not liking it.
Since Obama announced that he was asking Congress for approval for the strike 10 days ago, opposition to the plan has risen. Until Monday, Obama was planning to make a forceful case for American intervention and encourage a swift vote in Congress.
But that message has now been muddled by a fast moving diplomatic situation that has put off the urgency of a Congressional vote and complicated the American position. In fact, the defining feature of Obama’s current position is its internal complexity and countervailing messages.
The President must now sell an intervention to the American people that he did not want to launch unilaterally. He is likely to evoke the moral outrage of gassing children, even though he has made clear that his military goal is not to stop the loss of life in the Syrian civil war. He must implore Congress for a swift vote, even as he has signed off on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s decision to hold off on action in that chamber until the Russian offer can be explored. He will again ask for Congress to approve the strike, even though he maintains that he does not need the permission of Congress to strike.
So how is he likely to do it? According to administration officials and outside observers, Obama’s speech Tuesday will have three key goals: educating the American people about what happened last month, making the case for a military strike, and expressing openness to a diplomatic approach.
“It’s not going to be a laundry list,” says former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau. “He will try to tell a story with this speech about what happened on August 21, why it was a particularly horrible monstrosity, the action we’ve taken up to this point, and, if diplomacy fails, there’s only one country that can take action to punish those responsible and make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Present the Intelligence
For more two weeks, the Obama administration has briefed congressional lawmakers in both open and classified settings on what the intelligence community believes happened on August 21, when the Assad regime allegedly killed more than 1,400 in a sarin gas attack. But very little of that information has been made public to the American people, who remember the intelligence failures before the Iraq war. The White House maintains that for those who have received the classified briefing, the intelligence is incontrovertible.
“Assad, we believe—and we have the intelligence and evidence to back this up—is in control of the chemical weapons program,” said Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken Monday. “And would have—let me put it this way, any standing orders to use these weapons would have been issued by Assad, and our colleagues in the intelligence community showed in great detail the individuals in the chain of command who were engaged in the activities of August 21st.”
For Obama, Tuesday night’s address is an opportunity to make that case directly to the American people, explaining again what the United States knows about the loss of life and who was responsible.
“I think it’s an educational opportunity in a way that speeches often aren’t because at a lot of time people’s minds are made up because they have a lot of information on the issue,” says Favreau. “Who knows if it’s possible to sway public opinion in this case, but there’s been such a lack of information out there, so the president has an opportunity to really change the discussion.”
Make The Case for Action
A majority of Americans do not believe Obama has sufficiently made the case for military action, and by nearly the same margin do not believe the situation in Syria is a threat to national security. Making that case is the tallest order for Obama tonight. Even after weeks of outreach and briefings, congressional lawmakers who accept the intelligence still question the need for action.
“Ultimately, it is a persuasive speech. It’s aimed at making a case for action,” says Favreau.
Former Nixon and Reagan speechwriter Ken Khachigian, said Obama will be criticized equally if he uses soft language or strong language. “If there is a national interest, he has to define it in strong, aggressive terms,” Khachigian said, adding that Obama should state directly that the U.S. military is exceptionally prepared and will strike with force and with the amount of strength that needs to get this job done.
Obama will also have to explain any intervention plan in the context of a broader plan for the Syrian civil war, a key demand of GOP hawks. Congressional Republicans, including many sympathetic to a strike, are opposing Obama by claiming he has yet to provide a window into his strategy. Obama has hinted at providing broader support to the Syrian opposition, but will have to provide more details if he hopes to turn things around in Congress.
Explain the Diplomatic State of Play
The roots of Monday’s surprise turn of events can be traced to the G-20 meeting in Los Cabos last year, when Obama first discussed a proposal with Putin for the international takeover of Syrian chemical weapons. Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday morning that he’s had conversations with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov discussing the proposal since last week, and Obama and Putin discussed it on Friday in St. Petersburg.
The White House announced Tuesday that Obama, along with French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron, to pursue a solution to the crisis at the UN.
“They agreed to work closely together, and in consultation with Russia and China, to explore seriously the viability of the Russian proposal to put all Syrian chemical weapons and related materials fully under international control in order to ensure their verifiable and enforceable destruction,” a White House official said. “These efforts will begin today at the United Nations, and will include a discussion on elements of a potential UN Security Council Resolution.”
The vast majority of Congress, as well as the American people, have expressed opposition to a military strike if all diplomatic options have not been explored. In a Monday media blitz, Obama indicated that the Russian proposal could be a game changer and avoid a military strike, but only if it can be made credible. In his address, Obama must simultaneously express openness to the overture and skepticism that anything will come of it.
The administration has also said that if Congress suddenly abandons its plans to vote on the authorization for the strike, that the United States will lose leverage. “Our diplomatic hand only becomes stronger if other countries know that America is speaking with a strong voice, here, with one voice, and if we’re stronger as a united nation around this purpose,” Kerry said Tuesday morning on Capitol Hill. “In order to speak with that voice, we need you, the Congress.”
With reporting by Katy Steinmetz/Washington