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Obama’s Speech Didn’t Help His Cause

Fred Kaplan makes a strained argument that Obama could benefit if Russia abandons its proposal to have Syria give up its chemical weapons:

The upshot is this: If Russia backs away from a real deal, after exciting so many players to its possibilities, Obama could emerge with his air strikes gaining greater support—at home and abroad.

If Moscow’s proposal proves to be no more than a delaying tactic or runs into insurmountable political or practical obstacles, that doesn’t make Obama’s original case for military action any stronger. One of the reasons that Obama’s speech was so underwhelming is that the policy he was trying to justify pleases no one and seems likely to fail on its own terms. Nothing is likely to happen in the next few weeks or months that will make that any less true. The polling I mentioned yesterday suggests that Obama’s numbers drop as Americans pay more attention to this issue and his handling of it, and opposition to the proposed attack grows when administration officials try to promote it.

If the possible deal with Syria falls apart, that isn’t going to persuade the growing number of opponents that attacking Syria makes sense or that it would do any good. There are no additional governments waiting in line to endorse a U.S. attack on Syria if there is no deal with Syria. A possible diplomatic solution has been welcomed by so many so quickly because there is so little support anywhere for the administration’s proposed military action, and if that solution proves elusive it will not translate into greater support for the attack that most Americans and most nations firmly reject. This scenario would present Obama once again with the prospect of seeing the Syria resolution go down to defeat, and he would then have to decide whether he will abide by Congress’ vote (as he should) or order the attack anyway and face an even larger political backlash.

Kaplan continues:

But the new dynamic gives Obama more time, it gives his argument more force, and, if the deal does fall apart, it might make the legislators feel that Russia or Syria has betrayed them, too.

Giving Obama more time here isn’t helpful to Obama. Syria hawks were irritated by the decision to go to Congress because they saw no reason for delay, and some of them correctly assumed that delaying an attack would give opponents of military action the opportunity to mobilize against it. Skeptical members of Congress aren’t going to feel “betrayed” if nothing comes of Russia’s gambit, and many of them are likely to be annoyed with the administration for failing to pursue diplomatic alternatives before announcing that the U.S. was preparing to attack. Because support for military action appears politically toxic to many Democrats and opposition to it seems politically advantageous to most Republicans, it is extremely unlikely that the resolution would pass both houses, and that means that Obama would have to proceed without the political cover that going to Congress was supposed to provide. If he were to do that, an already deeply unpopular intervention would become even more so.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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