- By Peter FeaverPeter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.
The politics over Syria are remarkably fluid. On the one hand, Secretary Kerry gave the most impassioned speech given by any Obama administration principal on any foreign policy matter, dramatically intensifying the drumbeat of the military option. On the other hand, Senator John McCain, who favors the military option, leveled some serious charges at key Obama administration officials, claiming that earlier statements amounted to giving Syria a "green light" to use chemical weapons.
Put the two statements together and you have the prospect of a resort to military force, albeit likely a strictly limited one at the outset, without the customary level of political buy-in.
There are many reasons for this political uncertainty, and not all of them can be blamed on the Obama administration. But one reason that is within President Obama’s control is the confusing stream of contradictory messaging from the administration — from the White House in on the record and anonymous quotes and from the rest of the relevant executive branch players. President Obama’s own on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand remarks on Syria in a CNN interview did not help.
But President Obama is uniquely equipped to address the messaging problem. He should resort to the Big Stick of presidential rhetoric and give a prime-time Oval Office address, outlining his strategy for dealing with Syria. Too often, the administration has delegated the messaging on major national security developments to lower-ranking officials.
A retaliatory strike against Syria would be too important a development to be addressed in any forum less authoritative than remarks from the Oval Office.
So, assuming the Obama administration has thought out the kind of long-view strategy on Syria that they claim their critics have not, and assuming that the expected military action is an integral part of that long-view strategy, now is the time for the president to explain it to the American people.