Shadow Government

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Heavy Lifting in the Effort to Sell Syria Policy

When the 800-pound gorilla is not lifting his share, others are prone to overstrain themselves in making up the difference. That, in a belabored analogical nutshell, is what is going on with the effort to sell the Syria operation. The 800-pound gorilla is President Barack Obama. He, far more than any of his advisors, is ...

Thumbnail photo: Tiffany Tompkins-Condie/Bradenton Herald/MCT via Getty Images
Thumbnail photo: Tiffany Tompkins-Condie/Bradenton Herald/MCT via Getty Images
Thumbnail photo: Tiffany Tompkins-Condie/Bradenton Herald/MCT via Getty Images

When the 800-pound gorilla is not lifting his share, others are prone to overstrain themselves in making up the difference. That, in a belabored analogical nutshell, is what is going on with the effort to sell the Syria operation.

The 800-pound gorilla is President Barack Obama. He, far more than any of his advisors, is the one who can command the public attention and make the case for his armed intervention. He has not been totally absent, to be fair, but he also hasn't yet been effectively lifting his share.

Obama's initial decision to go to Congress sounded much like a partisan gotcha (an effect unfortunately reinforced by the way David Axelrod underlined the partisan nature of the president's decisions). Then Obama's most important comment since has been the bizarre attempt to walk back from his own responsibility for drawing the red line on Syria.

When the 800-pound gorilla is not lifting his share, others are prone to overstrain themselves in making up the difference. That, in a belabored analogical nutshell, is what is going on with the effort to sell the Syria operation.

The 800-pound gorilla is President Barack Obama. He, far more than any of his advisors, is the one who can command the public attention and make the case for his armed intervention. He has not been totally absent, to be fair, but he also hasn’t yet been effectively lifting his share.

Obama’s initial decision to go to Congress sounded much like a partisan gotcha (an effect unfortunately reinforced by the way David Axelrod underlined the partisan nature of the president’s decisions). Then Obama’s most important comment since has been the bizarre attempt to walk back from his own responsibility for drawing the red line on Syria.

It would be hard to script out things for Obama to say that would undermine Republican support for his proposal more efficaciously than what Obama (as well as Axelrod) has already said. So instead of helping with the lift, Obama’s public statements may actually be making the lift a little harder.

Enter Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. (And very belatedly Vice President Joe Biden. Where has Biden been, and is he thinking that this vote imperils his 2016 chances as his 2002 vote imperiled his 2004 presidential run?) Kerry and Hagel have the very challenging task of carrying the load, and I fear they are straining themselves in the process. Kerry has a very tough assignment in wooing votes simultaneously from people who fear Obama will do too much and from people who fear Obama will do too little, which may explain why he has confused would-be supporters with contradictory claims about ground troops, whether the United States is actually trying to tilt the balance in favor of the rebels (if not, why are we promising to arm the rebels?), and whether contingencies are adequately prepared for. And Hagel, who was picked to be the “voice of reason” against military adventures in the Middle East, seems palpably uncomfortable in the role of selling the Syria plan.

Three things would help at this point. First and most importantly, it would help if the administration articulated a coherent strategy for dealing with the challenges posed by Syria and the broader region. As many, including myself, predicted, one of the consequences of Obama’s surprise gambit was to expose the incoherence of the underlying strategy. In the absence of a strategy, multiple contradictory assurances to buy votes are inevitable.

Secondly, it would help if the administration could reassure us that it has a coherent political strategy. Journalist Peter Baker’s report out of the G-20 summit suggests that the administration doesn’t have a coherent political strategy. He writes that the White House advisors deem it “unthinkable” that the president would strike Syria if Congress voted against authorization. And, further, the White House aides say a no vote would sabotage the president’s coercive diplomacy regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions and any plans to leave behind a robust force in Afghanistan. In other words, the president impulsively bet the ranch on the House. He bet the ranch of his Syria policy, his Iran policy, and his Afghanistan policy on the House of Representatives. And he has not even gotten Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to whip this vote, on which his aides say his most important regional initiatives depend. 

Finally, if Baker is accurately reporting on the political calculus in the White House and if so much hangs in the balance, then the president has to shoulder the load. He has to make it clear that he, personally, takes responsibility for this decision and for the consequences. To use a different analogy, if he is going to coax other politicians onto a rickety raft, he has to lash himself to the mast and make it clear he will not abandon them as soon as the waves get choppy. He has to go over the heads of Congress and explain directly to the American people why he is doing something that runs so apparently contrary to his partisan messaging of the past decade. Now at the eleventh hour, the White House is indicating the president intends to do this.

In short, he has to lead and apparently he might start doing that.

A president who leads just might get others to follow, provided he knows where he is going. 

Update: Obama conceded that he has a “heavy lift” before him in his press conference today, but his meandering comments likely will not lift many votes. He said that he is trying to impart a sense of urgency, but at the same time acknowledged that in his view there is no imminent threat. He insisted that this action would be limited, but then said if Syria’s Bashar al-Assad responds with more attacks it will be easier to escalate still further. I expect that when the president speaks to the American people directly this coming Tuesday, he will deliver a more focused and coherent explanation of his strategy, one that dwells less on how disappointed he will be with other political leaders who shirk their responsibilities and instead dwells more on how he intends to carry out his own.

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

Tag: Syria

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