Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

It Is Time for President Obama to Seize Control of the Syria Narrative

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, ...

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

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.

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.  

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.