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Why Obama failed on Syria

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While a lot about Syria remains unsettled, one fact is clear: President Obama has failed to convince the public, and the Congress, that attacking the Assad regime is a good idea.

The administration has generated a flood of briefings and hearings, speeches and interviews, tweets and texts. No platform has gone unused, no argument unmade. The president even delivered a rare prime-time address from the White House. But Team Obama continues to violate two basic principles of political communications.

Start with the message broadcast on all those platforms. At its core, it’s been mixed and muddled. Early in the campaign, for example, Obama told PBS that if he did act, he would “take limited, tailored approaches” that would, somehow, also be “clear and decisive.” But his statements have done more to confuse people than convince them. He’s been trying to say two contradictory things at the same time, and that seldom works.

The second principle violated by the administration was even more damaging. They’ve failed to show how the tyrants in Damascus — as evil as they are — directly threaten the security of the United States or its citizens.

We are a high-minded, good-hearted nation. In his speech, the president emphasized the horrific images of dead children, gassed by their own government, and even urged viewers to watch the videos of those barbarities.

But in the end, politics is about self-interest. Syria is far away. And a large majority of Americans remain unconvinced that their own safety demands a military response to Assad’s perfidy.

The president conceded that weakness in an interview with PBS: “I’m not sure that we’re ever going to get a majority of the American people — after a decade of war, after what happened in Iraq — to say that any military action, particularly in the Middle East, makes sense in the absence of some direct threat.” His own wife, he admitted, is “very wary and suspicious of any action” for that very reason.

The president is correct. Syria poses no “direct threat” to American interests, only indirect ones. Those indirect threats are certainly real and potentially dangerous, but they are all conditional.

If we don’t act, chemical weapons could fall into the wrong hands and could be used against us. Enemies like Iran and Hezbollah could be emboldened to attack Israel. The United States could lose credibility and influence. Future tyrants in future crises could decide there’s no penalty for gassing civilians.

Those are all good arguments. But they’re not working. As the White House’s selling campaign has accelerated, its support has diminished. Several national polls, taken before the president’s speech, all found that almost two-thirds of Americans oppose an attack. In a New York Times/CBS survey, 79 percent said that the administration has not “clearly explained what the U.S. goals are in Syria” and the president admitted before his speech that “the polls are not going to change.” As he told a group of Republican senators, “I’m good, but not that good.”

That skepticism is reflected on Capitol Hill as well. Rep. Loretta Sanchez of California, a senior Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee, spoke for many uneasy lawmakers when she told NBC: “I haven’t heard that Assad wants to use weapons against us. I haven’t heard that he wants to use weapons against our allies, that he’s moving them to terrorist organizations. So I’m asking, where is the national security issue?”

The Russian proposal to shelve U.S. airstrikes if Syria agrees to turn over its chemical weapons could be a lifeline for a president who was likely to lose a showdown in Congress. Crafting a tough U.N. resolution acceptable to Moscow will be very difficult. But clearly Syrian and American leaders have a common interest in a compromise.

Both want to avoid getting bombed — Assad by cruise missiles, Obama by Congressional members.

A week ago it seemed possible that Obama could assemble a winning coalition of Democrats who want to protect the president, and Republicans who want to protect the presidency. Not now. And 11 years ago, Obama himself gave the reason for his current predicament.

As a freshman senator, Obama famously said he was not against all wars, just “a dumb war.” And Iraq was “dumb” in part because Saddam Hussein “poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States or to his neighbors.”

Many Americans are deciding Syria would be a “dumb war” for very similar reasons. That’s a lesson to be learned no matter how this crisis eventually comes out.

(Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.)

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