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.”