Obama Anti-War Stance Strained by Calls to Act on Syria

Among the pivotal moments of Barack Obama’s political career was an October 2002 speech challenging the tide of public opinion to oppose war with Iraq. His anti-war stance helped him win the Democratic nomination in 2008, and later the White House.

Now, inside the Oval Office, Obama confronts the possibility of embroiling the U.S. in another Mideast conflict, as he considers how to respond to evidence that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against civilians.

On one side is a drumbeat for intervention from allies around the world and some Republicans in Congress. On the other is a U.S. public weary of 12 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan and offering little support for new military commitments in the region.

“There’s a level of irony,” in Obama’s dilemma, said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist and an adviser on the 2004 presidential campaign of John Kerry, who’s now Obama’s secretary of state.

While his administration begins laying the groundwork for a decision on military action, the president hasn’t hidden his reluctance to act against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. To move forward, he would have to rally the U.S. public.

Devine said Obama’s opposition to the Iraq war and his decision to intervene in Libya without putting boots on the ground can be turned into assets. He can gather support for the course he takes by pointing to his “measured” responses to past international crises.

Action Urged

What Devine calls measured some Republicans label as weak. Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, Obama’s opponent in the 2008 presidential election, called for the U.S. to attack on Syrian airfields and military bases as well as to provide heavy weapons to Assad’s opponents.

“If the United States stands by and doesn’t take very serious action -- not just launching some cruise missiles -- then, again, our credibility in the world is diminished even more, if there’s any left,” McCain told reporters in Seoul yesterday.

The Syrian conflict has cost at least 100,000 lives, according to United Nations estimates, and the flood of refugees threatens to destabilize the region. Obama is being pushed toward a decision just as Congress is set to return to Washington to re-engage a political fight over budget priorities and the federal debt limit.

The White House stressed in public statements that Obama is moving forward with deliberation and that no decision has been made on a military response. “The president will continue to consult and review his options,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said.

‘Red Line’

Obama, who a year ago declared the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line,” has kept to that approach since reports surfaced that Assad’s forces used chemical weapons in an Aug. 21 attack that rebel groups say killed 1,300 people.

In his first comments after videos surfaced of the victims, Obama made reference to what many Democrats viewed as a rush to war in Iraq and said he would have to “think through strategically” how to respond.

“Sometimes what we’ve seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff, that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations,” Obama said in a CNN interview that aired Aug. 23.

Even so, he said, the importance of maintaining the international taboo against use of chemical arms and other weapons of mass destruction required a response. There’s a need “to do everything we can to put pressure on those who would kill innocent civilians,” Obama said.

‘Moral Obscenity’

Only after days of continued news media and Internet circulation of video of dead civilians and children did the administration step up the tone of its comments. Kerry yesterday called the attack a “moral obscenity” and said the evidence that Assad is responsible is “undeniable.”

Those kinds of images create a “circuit-breaker” that provides an opportunity to shift public opinion, which has opposed U.S. intervention in Syria, Devine said.

A Pew Research Center poll taken June 12-16 found 70 percent of Americans opposed Obama’s decision to provide arms to Syrian rebels in response to smaller-scale chemical weapons attacks there. The poll found 68 percent said the U.S. military is “too over-committed” to get involved in the Syrian conflict.

Mona Yacoubian, a senior adviser on the Middle East at the Stimson Center, a Washington policy research institute, said that the U.S. may have reached a “ Srebrenica moment,” referring to the 1995 massacre of Bosnian Muslims, in which international moral outrage over civilian deaths trumped doubts about military intervention.

‘Solid Ground’

Any U.S. military intervention also typically sparks a “rally round the flag” response in which the public initially supports the action and the president, though that can erode in the face of difficulties, Devine said.

“That gives the president some solid ground to talk to people and communicate what he’s doing and why he’s doing it,” Devine said. “Then it’s a question of how you do it, how you explain it, and how successful you are.”

Eliot Cohen, a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University’ s School of Advanced International Studies, said Obama is “in a predicament of his own making.”

“He chose not to have anything to do with the Syrian civil war for two years, casually said something about ‘red lines’ and now has a devilish problem,” said Cohen, a supporter of a forceful response in Syria.

U.S. Credibility

Failing to respond would endanger U.S. credibility. Ordering cruise missile strikes or other military action could inadvertently aid Islamist extremists allied with al-Qaeda who are battling Assad or trigger retaliatory attacks by Assad’s Hezbollah and Iranian allies.

Other Republican leaders left themselves more leeway. House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio urged Obama, in a public statement and a phone call to the White House, to consult with Congress and explain his actions to the public.

“The options facing the president are complicated, have far-reaching ramifications, and may require significant resources,” Boehner’s spokesman, Brendan Buck, said in a statement. “That’s why, if he chooses to act, the president must explain his decision publicly, clearly, and resolutely.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.