If there is one thing that even Barack Obama’s fiercest critics acknowledge, it is that the President can give a good speech. But tomorrow night, in a live address from the White House, he will have to deliver one of his very best. For Mr Obama will be trying to persuade a nation weary of war – and particularly weary of interventions in the thankless, draining sands of the Middle East – that the US should once again deploy its military might there.
His argument will be that America – and any allies it can conjure up – needs to punish Bashar al-Assad for his use of chemical weapons in the suburbs of Damascus on August 21. But while his message will be delivered to the American people, his most important audience will be the members of Congress, who have returned from holiday to a barrage of briefings ahead of the vital votes, expected within the next two weeks, on whether to support military action.
In a gamble that is shaping up as a make-or-break moment for his second term in office, Mr Obama has sought the authorisation of Congress – both the friendlier Democratic-controlled Senate and the fiercely antagonistic House of Representatives – for military action, even while insisting that he retains the right as commander-in-chief to act without it.
So, while the President struggled last week to court international support during a testy, and testing, G20 summit in St Petersburg, his aides were fanning out to persuade members of Congress as part of a strategy referred to – in a phrase borrowed from American football – as “flooding the zone”. In the most intense lobbying operation of the president’s five years in office, the White House has managed to recruit some former Bush administration officials to win over Republicans – while stating firmly that Syria is a very different case from Iraq. The main pro-Israeli lobby group is also urging support, arguing that a failure to act could embolden Iran to use similar weapons against Israel.
Publicly, Mr Obama’s team have deployed a battery of arguments – from the moral case that the Assad regime must be punished for breaking the norms of international behaviour, to the national security pitch that a “signal must be sent” to enemies who might be tempted to use chemical weapons in future. But privately, Team Obama – including the President himself, in calls from Russia – are making a remarkably direct plea to wavering Democrats: that Mr Obama needs them to save him from a defeat that would be humiliating at best and crippling at worst.
Yet many of those same Democrats are responding: why did you put us in this position? They could have lived with Mr Obama using executive power to launch a short campaign of missile strikes. But they cannot justify a “yes” vote to constituents enraged about the potential costs and consequences.
It was David Cameron’s defeat in Parliament less than two weeks ago that played a crucial role in changing Mr Obama’s strategy. If Britain had been involved in military action, with France also offering strong support, the President would have had the fig leaf of international co-operation. But he did not want to go it alone without the imprimatur of political support at home.
His thinking was that a public vote would force his congressional critics to put up or shut up, rather than sniping from the sidelines. But as each day passes, increasing numbers of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are saying that they will vote against the use of force.
The President therefore faces a defeat that would be much more dangerous than Mr Cameron’s. If he loses, even if only in the House – as seems increasingly likely as anti-Obama Republicans and anti-war Democrats find common cause – he will face two simple choices. He either decides not to pursue military action, a humiliating U-turn and major blow to America’s standing. Or he presses ahead regardless, severely undermining his already slim hopes for securing congressional support for his domestic agenda. Three years is a long time to be a lame duck, even by the standards of second-term presidents.
The President will warm up for tomorrow’s address with a blitz of interviews with the country’s six major television outlets today (competing, ironically, with Assad, who has given his own interview denying involvement in the attack in Damascus). He will certainly have to be a lot more persuasive than he was during his tepid performance at a press conference in St Petersburg. There, his messages were mixed and confused. Most dramatically, he even rowed back on the justification he appeared to have given for American intervention.
A year ago, in unscripted comments that caught his advisers off-guard, Mr Obama said that the use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” that “would change my calculus… would change my equation”. But in Russia, Mr Obama said their use was not a “red line” he had set, but one established by the international community, and that it was not his prestige that was in question, but that of Congress.
His task is further complicated by the fact that those Congressmen have been getting a very different message in the “town hall” meetings that they held last week to gauge voters’ opinions. John McCain, the hawkish Arizona senator, endured a particularly withering onslaught from angry constituents after he endorsed military strikes, even while criticising them as too limited. One heckler shouted: “You don’t respect our view! We didn’t send you to get war for us, we sent you to stop the war.”
Another man held up a bag of marshmallows as he condemned the lack of backbone among members of Congress. “They are a bunch of marshmallows,” the man said. “That’s what they are. That’s what they’ve become. Why are you not listening to the people and staying out of Syria? It’s not our fight.”
Even among those who are persuaded that Assad’s forces did gas their own people, there are concerns that military action will only help the radical Islamist factions that have been gaining ground among Syrian rebels. “If we go in on the side of the rebels, we will go in on the side of al-Qaeda,” Rand Paul, a Republican senator and leading opponent of intervention, said yesterday.
Mr Obama is only too aware of the doubts about American military power being deployed overseas. In 2008, he ran for president on the promise that he was going to take America out of wars – in Iraq and Afghanistan – not lead it into new ones. Indeed, he may well never have secured the Democratic nomination had he not, as a little-known state senator, opposed the march to war in Iraq, which his rival, Hillary Clinton, voted in the US Senate to support. In a speech then, he said that action in Iraq would be a “rash war, a war based not on reason but on passion” that would “distract” from America’s economic problems at home. Very similar words are now being deployed by critics of potential action in Syria.
It has been John Kerry, his secretary of state and a man with a reputation for bombast, who has delivered the most convincing and impassioned rationale for intervention. Mr Kerry, who arrived in London yesterday for talks with his British counterpart William Hague as part of his efforts to garner international support, urged America’s allies not to be “silent spectators to this slaughter” at the weekend. To step up the pressure, the White House’s allies on the Democrat-run Senate intelligence committee yesterday released 13 minutes of video depicting the victims of the gas attack. Shocking images showed men, women and children convulsing and foaming at the mouth, and the ranks of the dead shrouded in sheets.
Tomorrow, Mr Obama needs to persuade his audience not only that these gruesome scenes are the work of the Assad regime, but that a targeted and limited military intervention can serve as a response. First, however, he must persuade himself. Prevarication has often been a hallmark of his presidency, as he has struggled with the contrasting strands of his character: the pedestrian, academic approach of the former constitutional law professor versus the smooth, skilled orator and political operator. Even seeking congressional authorisation was a decision based on indecisiveness. To put his presidency back on track, Mr Obama needs to emerge as commander-in-chief, not Ditherer-in-chief.