Monday, September 9, 2013

Days of hammer and tongs:
Obama’s full court press on Syria

WHATEVER PIZZA business that’s got the White House and Congress on speed-dial probably had one hell of a great weekend. With the coming week likely to be a time of decision by the executive and legislative branches of our government on dealing with the situation in Syria, small businesses undoubtedly benefited from late nights in the West Wing, and elsewhere in the nation’s capital, these last few days.

Busy-ness is job #1. White House chief of staff Denis McDonough got the ball rolling on Sunday, with appearances on five Sunday-morning news programs. And President Obama isn’t outsourcing any of his own heavy lifting. The president will appear in interviews with six broadcast and cable news outlets today. Reuters reported Saturday that Obama will huddle with the anchors of ABC News, CBS News and NBC News, as well as the anchors for CNN, Fox News and PBS.

“The interviews will be taped on Monday afternoon and will air during each network's Monday evening news broadcast,” Reuters reported from a White House statement. This, of course, comes before the president’s planned address to the nation, set for Tuesday in prime time.

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Given the president’s love of basketball, the only thing to call it is a “full court press”; that’s the phrase being used in various news stories already. But while that’s true to a point, it’s another kind of game. Despite the flurry of interviews planned for today, a savvy use of the office’s bully pulpit, Obama’s playing a full court press without the ball. Which is very much in Congress’ court right now.

The uncertain fate of the resolution soon to be debated by the full Senate complicates whatever the president’s message will be today and Tuesday. This will be his best, most unalloyed opportunity to make his case for a military intervention — even as doubts about the source of the Aug. 21 gas attacks continue to swirl, and, importantly, as the Obama White House undercuts the authority of its own narrative by failing to release intelligence information that could dramatically buttress its case.

Like with the Syrian conflict itself, the risks of inaction by the White House — failing to correct the absence of corroborative details in the public record — are considerable. The administration’s penchant for secrecy and containment could well undo the hammer-and-tongs work on the Syrian question now underway in the White House.

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REPORTS HAVE surfaced that suggest the certainty of the source of the gas attacks may be less than certain. One example: Citing German intelligence, Germany's Bild am Sonntag paper reported Sunday that one of the chemical attacks believed to be carried out by the Syrian government may have been done without the personal approval of President Bashar al-Assad. Even if that’s true, from the standpoint of culpability, this would amount to being a distinction without a difference. An officer in the Syrian armed forces is very much a functionary of the Assad regime.

And if it is true – if a lower-echelon maverick in the Syrian military has both the access to chemical weapons and the ability to use them without approval from the Syrian government– Assad may be weaker and less in control of his country than we thought.

Another distinction without a difference may be the incidental one created by the Obama administration in advertising the proposed military strike as “limited,” “targeted,” “narrow” (among other such presumably surgical modifiers) and in stating that the strikes aren’t intended to hasten Assad’s ouster from power — as though the one wouldn’t affect the other.

This attempt at anodyne, calm-the-waters language obscures the moral narrative behind a proposed strike, and it complicates the message to the public. At the end of the day, a targeted strike on Syria for use of chemical weapons would have a direct impact on the civil war; the two are joined at the hip; the one would have an effect on the other. It’s time for the Obama administration to own that connection.

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But the biggest challenge to Obama’s strike plans may be the administration itself. Reuters reported on Sunday about how the White House is withholding some of the very intelligence the American public needs to know in order to give the president the support he needs to have.

From Reuters: “The Obama administration, searching for support from a divided Congress and skeptical world leaders, says its own assessment is based mainly on satellite and signals intelligence, including intercepted communications and satellite images indicating that in the three days prior to the attack that the regime was preparing to use poisonous gas.

“But multiple requests to view that satellite imagery have been denied, though the administration produced copious amounts of satellite imagery earlier in the war to show the results of the Syrian regime's military onslaught. ...

“The Obama administration maintains it intercepted communications from a senior Syrian official on the use of chemical weapons, but requests to see that transcript have been denied. So has a request by the AP to see a transcript of communications allegedly ordering Syrian military personnel to prepare for a chemical weapons attack by readying gas masks.”

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IT’S MADDENING little disconnects like that — disjunctures between what the White House says it wants and what the White House is prepared to do on its own behalf to get what it wants — which have the piranhas in the media ready for dinner.

Greg Sargent at The Washington Post weighed in last week, with just the right amount of pre-emptive snark, on how the media will react if the resolution goes down before the full Senate:

On Friday, Sargent wrote: “If Congress does say No, and if Obama listens — I see no reason to expect he won’t — it will set in motion a very interesting experiment. The roar of Obama-is-weak punditry — casting Obama as a lame duck who can’t get Congress to do anything, with grave consequences for the rest of his agenda – will be deafening, with few willing to point out that heeding Congress’ word is the right thing to do for the country. (Many are currently discussing the decision to go to Congress only in terms of motive and “optics” while refusing to comment on the substance of the decision itself.)

“But heeding Congress would amount to an important statement on behalf of the rule of law — it would be the truly ‘strong’ thing to do — and it wouldn’t be at all surprising if the public sees it as such, rather than buying into the Beltway ‘Obama is weak’ framing that will undoubtedly be ubiquitous.”

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Jane Harman agrees. “Putting this in Congress’ box is a very smart thing to do,” said Harman, former U.S. Representative for California's 36th Congressional District, speaking Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “There’s an international lesson on what a mature democracy looks like going on right now, and whatever the result is, there won’t be rifle fire in our streets.”

But if the resolution fails and the president walks away, it won’t be so easy to dismiss his previous (and thoroughly correct) call to action on Syria as a moral imperative for the world, and nothing less than a vote on the kind of world we want to live in. You can’t just walk back a statement of moral principle like it’s a talking point, and rest assured, the president wouldn’t even try. So what options would be left?

If he felt deeply enough about it, if his convictions as previously delivered were strong enough, the president’s last recourse would be an appeal to the United Nations General Assembly. But that would isolate the president from Congress even more, and would send absolutely the wrong signal to the American people about his confidence in the American government he leads. Few things would make realizing his second-term domestic agenda more precarious than that.

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SOME HAVE rushed to the general conclusion that if the Senate approves the resolution, a strike would be more or less imminent from that moment — that cruise missiles would be inbound from the second the deciding senator says “aye.” That’s likely to be wrong. Nothing in the resolution obligates Obama to act immediately; waiting for the United Nations chemical weapons inspectors to complete their work wouldn’t in and of itself be an obstacle to a strike against Syria.

There may be no need to wait on the UN at all. The German weekly Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung reported on Saturday that the inspectors “could submit initial findings from its tests of samples collected in Syria by the end of next week.” The paper’s report was circulated widely by other news outlets.

In some ways, time is on President Obama’s side. Whether the resolution is agreed to by the Senate or rejected, as various Beltway seers now predict, Obama would have time to build a diplomatic and military coalition that accurately reflects the international concern this ought to be. Ironically enough, if it’s rejected, the president will be compelled to step away from the prospect of swift action and go back to doing what he’s become known for, for the entirety of his administration: deliberating, considering, thinking things through.

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Whether that would change the White House calculus for military action is anyone’s guess. In any case,  the Obama administration has cards it’s not showing right now, and Americans want to know what they are. That partly explains some of the president’s most recent poll numbers on Syrian intervention; a Sept. 4 Pew Research Center poll found that 48 percent of Americans feel the president hasn’t laid out his case for a strike clearly enough.

That may be another way of expressing a sense of foreboding about what could be coming. It won’t be easily dismissed, and it won’t be affected at all if the president doesn’t lay it all out tomorrow and Tuesday. Emphasis on all.

Every American president has one: the single clarifying, crucible crisis that lays bare his strengths and weaknesses; the event or series of events that thoroughly distills the essence of an administration; the pivot point whose momentousness is both immediately apparent and historically resonant.

President Obama may have his very own in the next 72 hours.

Image credits: Obama and Biden, Rose Garden: The Associated Press. Assad and generals: The Associated Press. Harman: via Raw Pew Syria poll snapshot: © 2013 Pew Research Center.

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