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.