Shadow Government

Obama's Syria Challenge: Overcoming His Previous Message on Intervention

Until President Barack Obama has laid out his case directly to the American people, it is too soon to declare the effort to sell his Syria policy a total failure. But the early returns are not promising. The latest poll shows that the American people overwhelmingly want Congress to vote down authorization. There is rare bipartisan consensus that the administration has not yet convinced Congress to vote against this public sentiment. Obama seems poised to lose the congressional vote, so the heavy lift of his appeal to the public Tuesday night could hardly be heavier.

This has led the leading academic expert on presidential rhetoric, George Edwards, to remind us that the bully pulpit is not all-powerful; indeed it may not be very powerful at all. Edwards notes that even presidents famous for their abilities as Great Communicators -- FDR and Ronald Reagan -- failed to persuade the American people on key policy initiatives. A president like Obama with far more limited communication skills, and serving in an exceptionally partisan environment, should not be expected to move public opinion dramatically.

Edwards is right to downplay expectations for a dramatic turnaround in public opinion, but I think this truth may mislead about the limitations on the president as messenger.

Obama's challenge this week is that he must overcome a public that, to a very great extent, has lined up with the message the president has been sending for the past five years. The difficulty Obama will face in changing the public's mind this week may well be testimony to his success in persuading the public of his worldview up until now.

For the past five years, Obama has told the American people that no good thing has come from intervening militarily in the Muslim world and that no bad thing has or will come from refraining from those military ventures -- or, in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, unilaterally withdrawing from those ventures. Obama does not talk about what was achieved in Iraq beyond the achievement of "ending the war." As for Afghanistan, the soaring rhetoric of the "good war" from the 2008 campaign quickly gave way to "Afghan good enough" -- and even that lower standard is rarely invoked anymore. The American people have almost never heard Obama talk about anything worth accomplishing in Iraq or Afghanistan. Moreover, for the past two years the Obama administration has repeatedly told the American people that there is no good military option in Syria and that restraint, however unfortunate its humanitarian consequences might be, is the only prudent course. That may help explain why the American people think there is nothing worth doing militarily in Syria.

For over a decade, the American people heard Democrats mock as "unilateralist" the coalition of the willing of some several dozen allies in Iraq. That may help explain why the American people are not impressed that the number of countries willing to join Obama's Syria venture might reach "in the double digits," as Secretary of State John Kerry put it on Sept. 7. 

Even last week, as the president started to make the case for an armed response, he repeatedly emphasized how ambivalent he was about the utility of military force. As a friend of mine observed, Obama's argument seemed to be: "The previous wars we have fought have produced unintended consequences, but I opposed those wars and so you can trust me to manage this new one without producing any unintended consequences." Obama may have persuaded more Americans about the disutility of military tools than he persuaded about his ability to wield those tools effectively.

Obama's communication challenge is to persuade the American people to ignore, or at least to set aside for a while, the message he has sent so consistently since emerging on the national stage.

This is a daunting task, and it may not even be possible, as Edwards suggests. I don't think it will be achievable unless Obama reaches a level of candor he has not yet reached. He should take a page out of President George W. Bush's playbook.

When announcing the Iraq surge in 2007, Bush proposed an abrupt about-face policy roughly as unpopular as the Syria gambit is today. After several years of promising that "as the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down," the surge amounted to an acknowledgment that much of what

Bush had been saying about how the old strategy in Iraq was going to succeed turned out not to be true. So Bush gave a remarkably candid speech that acknowledged how the previous policy was failing, and he then laid out why a dramatically different approach could work. Bush did not win converts overnight with that speech. Indeed, many people now running Syria policy -- including Obama himself -- quickly denounced the surge and declared it a failure. Bush, however, was able to secure just enough political support to sustain his oolicy, barely, until the facts on the ground proved him right.

I don't think Bush would have been able to prevail politically on the Iraq surge if he had not acknowledged where he had been wrong up until the abrupt about-face. In a similar way, I don't think Obama will be able to prevail politically on Syria unless he too acknowledges where he has been wrong.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

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