How to Sell a Syrian Intervention to a Skeptical Public

In eight easy steps.

Members of the local Syrian community rally against the United States' involvement in Syria, Aug. 27, 2013 in Allentown, Pa. (AP Photo/Chris Post)
National Journal
Matt Berman, Marina Koren, Brian Resnick and Matt Vasilogambros
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Matt Berman Marina Koren Brian Resnick Matt Vasilogambros
Sept. 10, 2013, 5:53 p.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama faced a nearly im­possible mis­sion Tues­day night: con­vin­cing the Amer­ic­an pub­lic of the mer­it of something that even his White House isn’t totally sure about.

For the most part, the speech was a sum­mary of the tangled, rap­idly chan­ging events that led to this mo­ment. And this mo­ment is where the story can fork in two dir­ec­tions: Will there be a dip­lo­mat­ic solu­tion mas­saged in­to place by the Rus­si­ans and the United Na­tions, or will the United States strike? Obama, a pres­id­ent who says he has “a deeply held pref­er­ence for peace­ful solu­tions,” wants to leave the war op­tion open. The pres­id­ent said,

It’s too early to tell wheth­er this of­fer will suc­ceed, and any agree­ment must veri­fy that the As­sad re­gime keeps its com­mit­ments. But this ini­ti­at­ive has the po­ten­tial to re­move the threat of chem­ic­al weapons without the use of force, par­tic­u­larly be­cause Rus­sia is one of As­sad’s strongest al­lies. I have there­fore asked the lead­ers of Con­gress to post­pone a vote to au­thor­ize the use of force while we pur­sue this dip­lo­mat­ic path.

So, how did he sell his case against Syr­ia?

Step 1: Use graph­ic im­agery. In the be­gin­ning of his speech, the pres­id­ent al­luded to chil­dren “foam­ing at the mouth, gasp­ing for breath” and “a fath­er, clutch­ing his dead chil­dren, im­plor­ing them to get up and walk.” The im­ages from the chem­ic­al at­tack in Syr­ia were “sick­en­ing,” the pres­id­ent said. And he tried to make that case as vis­cer­ally as pos­sible, even ask­ing mem­bers of Con­gress and cit­izens tun­ing in to see the im­ages for them­selves. One of the pres­id­ent’s last lines of the speech ap­pealed to people’s own chil­dren, and wheth­er they would like to them af­fected by deadly gases.

Step 2: Use his­tory. Obama com­pared chem­ic­al-weapons use in Syr­ia to something Amer­ic­ans can agree was in­ex­cus­able: the use of deadly gas by the Nazis dur­ing the Holo­caust. “Be­cause these weapons can kill on a mass scale with no dis­tinc­tion between sol­dier and in­fant,” he said, “the civ­il­ized world spent a cen­tury work­ing to ban them.”

Obama also quoted a his­tor­ic­al lu­minary. To­ward the close of the speech, he ref­er­enced the 20th-cen­tury pres­id­ent most closely as­so­ci­ated to suc­cess­ful, jus­ti­fied war:

Frank­lin Roosevelt once said our na­tion­al de­term­in­a­tion to keep free of for­eign war and for­eign en­tan­gle­ments can­not pre­vent us from feel­ing deep con­cern when ideas and prin­ciples that we have cher­ished are chal­lenged.

Step 3: Ap­peal to hu­man­ity. The pres­id­ent isn’t blind to the fact that Amer­ic­ans are largely against his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s cur­rent stance on Syr­ia. But to help over­come that, the pres­id­ent ap­pealed to a lar­ger sense of hu­man­ity that not only com­pelled him to act, but made it seem in­sane not to. Ninety-eight per­cent of hu­man­ity pro­hib­its the use of chem­ic­al weapons, the pres­id­ent said. “On Au­gust 21, these ba­sic rules were vi­ol­ated. Along with our sense of com­mon hu­man­ity.”

Step 4: Level with the war-weary pub­lic. Again, the pres­id­ent knows his audi­ence, and he wasn’t shy about their over­whelm­ing opin­ions right now. “This na­tion is sick and tired of war,” he said. And how can he help that? “My an­swer is simple: I will not put Amer­ic­an boots on the ground in Syr­ia.” Con­trast­ing his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pos­sible mil­it­ary plan with past op­er­a­tions, Obama said, “I will not pur­sue an open-ended ac­tion like Ir­aq or Afgh­anistan. I will not pur­sue a pro­longed air cam­paign like Libya or Kosovo.”

Step 5: Fre­quently Asked Ques­tions. To sell his po­s­i­tions to those who do not agree with a Syr­i­an in­ter­ven­tion, the pres­id­ent went to the mail­bag to ad­dress con­cerns. “I’ve read in let­ters that you’ve sent to me,” he said. “First, many of you have asked, won’t this put us on a slip­pery slope to an­oth­er war?”

An­oth­er ques­tion he ad­dressed: “Why not leave this to oth­er coun­tries?” This came up dir­ectly in a CBS News/New York Times poll re­leased Tues­day morn­ing which found that 62 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans don’t think the U.S. should take the lead in for­eign af­fairs. Obama used this op­por­tun­ity to make the case that the United States isn’t go­ing it alone. It was here when the pres­id­ent brought up the bur­geon­ing chem­ic­al-weapons deal over the last few days, in­volving ne­go­ti­ations with Rus­sia. And he used the full weight of U.S. demo­cracy to make the case for this pos­sible path:

This ini­ti­at­ive has the po­ten­tial to re­move the threat of chem­ic­al weapons without the use of force par­tic­u­larly be­cause Rus­sia is one of As­sad’s strongest al­lies. I have there­fore asked the lead­ers of Con­gress to post­pone a vote to au­thor­ize the use of force while we pur­sue this dip­lo­mat­ic path.

Step 6: Ap­peal to both sides of the aisle. Act like you are in the cen­ter. To­ward the end of his re­marks, Obama ex­pli­citly tried to po­s­i­tion him­self and his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s view on Syr­ia as be­ing in the cen­ter.

To my friends on the right, I ask you to re­con­cile your com­mit­ment to Amer­ica’s mil­it­ary might with the fail­ure to act when a cause is so plainly just. To­night, my friends on the left, I ask you to re­con­cile your be­lief in free­dom and dig­nity for all people with those im­ages of chil­dren in pain and go­ing still on a cold hos­pit­al floor, for some­times res­ol­u­tions and state­ments of con­dem­na­tion are simply not enough.

Step 7: Re­as­sure the pub­lic in the Amer­ic­an ar­sen­al. Obama’s speech bal­anced a lot of con­flict­ing points. We must be strong in our re­solve for ac­tion, but be amen­able to peace. We must strive to di­min­ish the chem­ic­al-weapons stock­pile, but without the in­ten­tion of end­ing the civil war. We will strike hard, but to a lim­ited end. What a dance of rhet­or­ic. But he was clear about the might of the Amer­ic­an mil­it­ary.

“Let me make something clear, the United States mil­it­ary doesn’t do pin­pricks,” he said, bor­row­ing a line from Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry testi­fy­ing be­fore Con­gress earli­er in the day be­fore the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee. “Even a lim­ited strike will send a mes­sage to As­sad that no oth­er na­tion can de­liv­er.”

But then, again, he qual­i­fied that use of force, fol­low­ing up with, “I don’t think we should re­move an­oth­er dic­tat­or with force.”

Last Step: Ap­peal to Amer­ic­an ex­cep­tion­al­ism. “Amer­ica is not the world’s po­lice­man,” the pres­id­ent said at the end of his re­marks. “Ter­rible things hap­pen across the globe. And it is bey­ond our means to right every wrong.” But the U.S., the pres­id­ent ar­gued, is still uniquely suited to make the world a bet­ter place.

When with mod­est ef­fort and risk, we can stop chil­dren from be­ing gassed to death, and thereby make our own chil­dren safer over the long run, I be­lieve we should act. That’s what makes Amer­ica dif­fer­ent. That’s what makes us ex­cep­tion­al. With hu­mil­ity but with re­solve, let us nev­er lose sight of that es­sen­tial truth.

Hit­ting the widest pos­sible audi­ence, the speech was the White House’s most vis­ible chance to con­vince an Amer­ic­an pub­lic and hordes of law­makers who don’t agree. Ac­cord­ing to a Pew poll re­leased Monday, nearly two-thirds of Amer­ic­ans are op­posed to a U.S. strike against Syr­ia.

While just 31 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans ap­prove of Obama’s hand­ling of the situ­ation, his job-ap­prov­al rat­ing on for­eign af­fairs re­mains at a steady 42 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to a Gal­lup poll. Pew, mean­while, has Obama’s ap­prov­al rat­ing on for­eign policy at an all-time low, at 33 per­cent.

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