Commentary Magazine


The Case for a Presidential Address on Syria

Politico’s Glenn Thrush caused a minor stir this morning when he tweeted, regarding Syria: “Is POTUS going to address the nation directly before embarking on military action in Syria? Many of his aides think it’s a passé tactic.” He followed up a few minutes later: “Not saying Obama won’t address nation. But will he do it a) BEFORE acting and b) from Oval? Obama hates direct-to-camera – prefers audience”.

It’s possible the president strongly disagrees with the unnamed advisors here; it would be quite ironic for the president whose career was propelled by speechmaking to dismiss the power of his own words. Yet Obama has been relatively quiet on this issue recently and he is even hesitant to go to Congress to get authorization for entering the Syrian civil war. But the president’s concerns here are justified; it’s just that he’s chosen the wrong way to respond.

The president no doubt has seen the polling. The latest Reuters/Ipsos poll found that: “About 60 percent of Americans surveyed said the United States should not intervene in Syria’s civil war, while just 9 percent thought President Barack Obama should act.” A coalition of the willing starts at home, and nine percent is not encouraging. But there’s a silver lining. As the AP reported in a roundup of Syria polling, “The Pew Research Center has tracked public attention to news about the conflict in Syria since May 2011, and has consistently found most Americans are tuned out. Each time they’ve asked, a majority said they were not following closely.”

The question is whether there is anything Obama can do to change their minds. The answer is yes–he’s already done it, to an extent. As the Washington Post reported in December, Obama had been personally opposed to intervening in the Syria civil war but in August 2012 set Syrian chemical weapons use as his “red line.” Wouldn’t you know it, four months later a poll found a majority of Americans opposed intervention in Syria–unless the regime used chemical weapons. Then all bets were off, and suddenly support for military action in Syria went from 17 percent to 63 percent.

Perhaps the American public had coincidentally formed their own opinion of what constitutes a red line in Syria independent of the president. But that’s unlikely. What seems to have happened is that Americans weren’t following the conflict closely but set their conditions for involvement precisely as the president had. The point here is not only that the crossing of the red line is likely to change at least a few minds. It’s that the public has shown both that it is not paying close attention to Syria and that it broadly trusts Obama’s judgment on American action. The opportunity, then, for Obama to build support for action the administration seems intent on taking is staring the president in the face.

Whether or not the president thinks Reddit AMAs and Twitter town halls are the way to reach young Americans, on matters of war and peace a serious address in a serious setting is the way to get Americans’ attention, and it will almost surely get results. As I wrote last year, when discussing the efficacy of presidential rhetoric it’s important to make a distinction between foreign and domestic policy. I noted that Obama has experienced this as well. Like past presidents, he has had difficulty selling the public on major domestic reforms, but also like his predecessors, he has had much more success selling the public on the deployment of American military forces. The president is the commander in chief, and the public treats him that way. Obama, after all, won a nine-percent jump in public support for the war in Afghanistan after his announcement of a troop surge there.

Additionally, while it’s true that the country is war weary and that there are those in Congress just itching to vote against more foreign intervention, Obama is underestimating the support he would have. He should go to Congress for approval; he’d get it. That will at least somewhat insulate him from charges of warmongering or recklessness, and certainly of partisanship or double standards. And he should address the American people, make the case for his desired course of action, and ask for their support. If past is prologue, he’ll get that too.