President Obama delivered a measured speech that illustrates his efforts to create an open foreign-policy process in which Congress and the public share responsibility for making decisions about military intervention. A democratic process, though, may lead to a minimalist foreign policy; whether the president can persuade Congress and the public to endorse military action when U.S. security interests are not immediately at stake remains to be seen.
Director, Peter S. Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency
Peter S. Kalikow Chair in Presidential Studies
Professor of Political Science
What was good about the president’s speech last night highlights what was bad about the White House’s management of the issue during the two weeks leading up to it. He was forced to clearly outline the limits of his proposal, “I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria. I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan. I will not pursue a prolonged air campaign like Libya or Kosovo. This would be a targeted strike to achieve a clear objective, deterring the use of chemical weapons and degrading Assad’s capabilities.” In the run-up to military activity, you usually expect the president to dehumanize the target while stirring pride and nationalism. Instead, the President was forced to define his proposal by telling us what he wouldn’t do. He relied on a technique termed “hypophora,” that had him stating others’ questions, and giving answers. This suggests that he recognized the need to corral the public discussion back to his actual intent, which had been poorly defined from the start. In the context of needless wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, many pundits (both those cynical and well-meaning) concluded that the president was trying to find ways to support Syrian rebels. Would that mean we would be participating in the war? Were we picking a side? These are reasonable questions, as “WMDs” and “despots” were used as causes for wars in the recent past. What the president wanted to do was unclear. The President’s words last night seemed designed to clarify his intent.
Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Rhetoric
President Obama’s speech on Syria last night – though lacking in details and failing to adequately address diplomatic alternatives to military intervention – provided a stronger than expected argument for why punishment through limited military strikes for the use of chemical weapons is in U.S. national security interests. While the speech will provide a solid argument for intervention if there is another use of chemical weapons, it is unlikely to move the current debate on the question of U.S. intervention for the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. The American public is war-wary, there is growing sentiment that the U.S. should pursue more limited foreign policy aims, and Congress seems to have taken the speech as a sign that it is – at least for now – off the hook for a vote authorizing military force.
Assistant Professor of Political Science
The fact is, for anyone willing to see it (and there aren’t many), Obama is a far more conservative president than most any Americans on either the left or right realize, but he needs to hide that fact from his base, hence part of his fundamental communications problem. On Syria, the president was starting from way behind the eight-ball. Conservatives and Republicans will almost all oppose this president on any given issue right down the line, even when – as in health care or foreign policy – he adopts their own policy prescriptions. Now, for the first time in perhaps a century, we’re seeing that this intransigence extends even to national security questions, where the president historically has always gotten a lot of leeway. Liberals, on the other hand, tend to oppose military solutions to foreign policy problems except as a last resort. That leaves few people disposed toward an attack on Syria from the get-go. On top of all that, the entire country is tired of endless Middle East wars, tired of being deceived about them by their government, and tired of having their domestic problems ignored while the middle class sinks further and further into economic despair. In this context, it would have been hard for anyone to sell an attack on Syria. In the end, Obama didn’t even try – or at least not yet. But if he does later, I doubt he can rally public or Congressional support for his policy of attacking another Arab state.
Professor of Political Science
The president’s speech last night was incoherent. After devoting most of his presentation to making a strong moral case for a U.S. military response to the Syrian atrocities, President Obama proceeded to assure us that he shares the misgivings of many Americans regarding military intervention; that any military action against the perpetrators of these atrocities, if undertaken would be minor (but more than a pinprick); and that he was asking Congress to support him but postponing the vote so we could consider a Russian proposal that few consider realistic. Frankly, the speech seemed confusing and pointless. More disturbingly, President Obama projected a sense of weakness that is likely to only embolden our adversaries.
Associate Professor of Political Science
I interpret the President’s message as an attempt to buy more time to build support among the public, in Congress, and throughout the world for a military strike. A parallel would be the efforts of George H. W. Bush to gauge and garner public, Congressional and international support prior to the Persian Gulf War, or President Clinton’s efforts in 1993-95 to build support for U.S. involvement in Bosnia. Public opinion necessarily constrains presidents in a democracy, but presidents have ample tools to shape and mold it.
Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Political Science