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“Anti-war president can’t convince reluctant public to attack Syria.”
That could well be the headline summarizing what’s been happening in Washington the past two weeks. It captures the basic irony underlying President Barack Obama’s uphill effort to win support for striking Syria and explains why Tuesday night’s presidential speech did little to change that.
For nearly a decade, Obama and other top Democrats have sought to convince Americans that the time for foreign interventions is over, and the United States needs to concentrate on solving its long-neglected domestic problems. That argument was a centerpiece of Obama’s 2008 campaign.
The strong public reaction against Obama’s plan to use military force against Syria’s use of deadly chemical weapons affirms that the Democrats indeed won that debate and why, as a result, Obama has found it so hard to win congressional backing.
It also explains why even some of his strongest congressional allies quickly embraced this week’s Russian proposal for Syria to give up its chemical weapons arsenal in hopes it could delay or prevent a U.S.-Syria showdown.
That’s not the only irony. A combination of saber rattling by Obama and the allegedly off-hand comment by Secretary of State John Kerry that precipitated Russia’s proposal has enabled the administration to claim that its threat to use force led directly to the alternative that may give it an out, rather than an defeat.
“It’s the credible threat of force that has been on the table for these last weeks that has for the first time brought this (Syrian) regime to even acknowledge that they have a chemical weapons arsenal,” Kerry told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday. “And it is the threat of this force and our determination to hold Assad accountable that has motivated others to even talk about a real and credible international action that might have an impact.”
Against this background, Obama went ahead with a speech Tuesday night that was originally intended to convince Americans and their representatives in Congress of the reasons why a U.S. attack on Syria was in the national interest.
Much of it was devoted to convincing Americans of something they already believe: Bashar Assad is a brutal dictator who used chemical weapons against his people. Obama was less successful in explaining why a “targeted” military response would succeed in punishing him without provoking a Syrian counter-attack or leading to a widened war ultimately involving the United States.
For the moment, however, everything seems on hold: the fate of the proposed compromise, the threat of an American strike on Syria and a congressional vote that still seems likely to reject Obama’s plan.
That’s a situation that would seem to benefit both Assad, who wants to avoid the strike, and Obama, who is fighting a losing battle in Congress. Indeed, the enormous domestic opposition to any American strike suggests that the best thing for Obama would be for lawmakers to reject or sidetrack his proposal, thus preventing him from getting enmeshed in Syria.
That would be the ultimate irony.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at email@example.com.
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