President Barack Obama speaks at a G-20 press conference. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais.)
After a media blitz plagued by inconsistencies that deepened, rather than relieved, public skepticism, the administration’s case for bombing Syria has come undone. Congress now appears unlikely to authorize an immediate use of force, particularly since Russia, Syria and several lawmakers have undercut the administration’s claim to have “exhausted the alternatives” to war.
Tonight, President Obama will give a major prime-time address that was initially intended to drum up public support for the use of force. With the White House now backing an international diplomatic effort to secure Syria’s weapons, the president’s speech could mark a significant break from the message previously voiced by the administration. Even a tentative embrace of a diplomatic solution would be a profound shift. It would also be an implicit acknowledgment of how weakly the administration’s case for war has been made.
The White House’s attempt to sell military strikes to the public went nowhere. It was crowded, for one thing, with spokespeople such as John Kerry, Samantha Power and Susan Rice dispatched to think tanks and the Capitol to drum up support. Instead of presenting a unified front, officials often contradicted one another and the president, and raised more questions than they answered.
Take the issue of intelligence. Last week, Kerry said that the intelligence linking Assad to the August 21 chemical weapons attacks was “beyond a reasonable doubt—and I used to prosecute cases.” He continued, “And I can tell you, beyond a reasonable doubt, the evidence proves that the Assad regime prepared this attack and that they attacked exclusively opposition-controlled or -contested territory.” The administration maintained its public certainty about Assad’s culpability even while diverting public requests for the evidence, which reportedly includes transcripts of Syrian military communications connecting the government to the attack.
But when chief of staff Denis McDonough appeared on five Sunday talk shows to clear up questions about Syria, he wavered. After CNN’s Candy Crowley asked whether intelligence proved a “direct link” between Assad and the August 21 attack, McDonough replied, “All of that leads to…a quite strong common-sense test, irrespective of the intelligence, that suggests that the regime carried this out.” He went on: “Do we have a picture or do we have irrefutable, beyond a reasonable doubt evidence? This is not a court of law. And intelligence does not work that way.”
The administration also failed to answer questions about the scale of the strikes effectively. They will be “unbelievably small,” Kerry said on Monday. Hours later, Obama corrected him. “The US does not do pinpricks. Our military is the greatest the world has ever known,” he told Savannah Guthrie of ABC, in one of six interviews aired last night.
The underlying trouble with the White House’s message is that it has to appeal to too many factions with widely divergent interests. The administration claims the strikes will be forceful enough to “deter and degrade,” but not large enough to commit the United States to protracted engagement. The White House has to sell strikes to the hawks as a complement to a broader strategy of regime change, while simultaneously telling a war-shy public that military action is solely a punitive and isolated measure.
Given its inability to anchor such magical thinking to concrete strategy and objectives, the administration’s best case was to sell military strikes as, if not the best, the only option. Ironically, that’s the point that Kerry was trying to make when he unintentionally initiated an alternative solution.
Asked at a news conference in London whether Bashar al-Assad could do anything to avert American airstrikes, Kerry responded, “Sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week—turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow the full and total accounting.” He dismissed the possibility immediately. “But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.”
Obviously. The bottom line of the administration’s argument has been declarations of absolute fact and certainty that, when teased apart, appear hazy and inexact. The transformation happened rapidly after Kerry’s comment.
Russia, ignoring the State Department’s clarification that Kerry wasn’t actually proposing a diplomatic solution but was instead “making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood” of such an alternative, declared that it would work with the Syrian government to turn its chemical weapons over to international control if it would in fact forestall American military action. Syria’s foreign minister immediately said the government welcomed the Russian proposal. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and British Prime Minister David Cameron both endorsed the plan. Harry Reid put the authorization resolution on hold in the Senate. Even Hillary Clinton, who had been expected to throw her weight behind the administration when she spoke at the White House yesterday, conceded the Russian proposal could be “an important step.”
Obama, too, adapted his message to keep up with the events of the day in interviews with six major networks that aired last night. “My preference consistently has been a diplomatic resolution to this problem,” he said on NBC. “If we can accomplish this limited goal without taking military action, that would be my preference,” he told CNN. “We should explore and exhaust all avenues of diplomatic resolution to this,” he told Fox, breaking sharply from previous assertions that all of those avenues had already been followed to dead ends.
Clearly the administration’s PR malady lies deeper than rhetoric. Yes, there were plenty of poor rhetorical choices, particularly from Kerry, who compared Assad to Hitler and indicated that airstrikes could lead to boots on the ground, among other unwise comments. But the real problem wasn’t that Obama’s spokespeople, and Obama himself, chose the wrong words with which to sell military action. It was that the strategy itself was fundamentally untenable.
Obama now has a chance to initiate a new message tonight, one that the public and Congress seems to want to hear: that there are nonmilitary alternatives to an immediate use of force, and he is committed to pursuing them. The public should be wary, however, of new words shrouding old plans. As my colleague George Zornick reports, hawks in the Senate may be preparing to make the case that authorizing a use of force is necessary to keep the Syrians at the bargaining table. Obama hinted as much last night when he told Scott Pelley of CBS, “I don’t think that we would’ve gotten to the point where they even put something out there publicly, had it not been—and if it doesn’t continue to be—a credible military threat from the United States.” As of this afternoon, it appears the president wants Congress to delay the vote on the use of force authorization, but to keep working on the resolution.
In fact, Moscow grabbed hold of the “rhetorical argument” cast aside by Kerry just as Obama’s case for war was rapidly unraveling at home, when the military threat was less certain than it had been at any point since the chemical weapons strike in August. The success of any diplomatic solution now depends on Russia and the United States bridging a wide gulf of mistrust. It seems the real need is for credible diplomacy.
Tom Tomorrow illustrates the contradictions in the White House’s campaign for a strike on Syria.