As President Obama works furiously to convince a skeptical Congress and an even more skeptical public on the need for military action against Syria, he faces two major obstacles that have little to do with Syria itself. One relates to the limited nature of the military response he is advocating. The second is his bizarre communications strategy. He cannot do much about the former, but there is a lot he can do about the latter.
Many, if not most, military analysts would endorse the president’s reluctance to get involved in the Syrian civil war. Civil wars are ugly, entangling, and expensive. So if the use of chemical weapons demands a response, then it is wise that any action have clear and limited objectives. And while that is great from the cool, rationalist perspective of an analyst, when it comes to politics, prudence doesn’t sell. Indeed, scholars have studied the tendency of American presidents to “over-sell” in order to win public support. That typically takes the form of demonizing and building up an adversary, understating the risks of action, and overstating the likelihood of success.
Past presidents have over-sold because when it comes to war, it is easier to sell all-in or all-out rather than the mushy middle. People can get riled up to remove the next Hitler or scared away from costly quagmires, but it is difficult to get folks ginned up for limited actions promising modest results. It is a political no man’s land, where the public is expected to sign on to something that leaves the evil doer in place (in this case with at least some of his chemical arsenal) but still entails all the risks of war.
To Obama’s credit, he did not let the politics pollute his military objectives, but he has left himself in a difficult position, especially when America is just coming out of two wars, at least one of which is widely seen as a debacle. And even in war, the politics matter.
Further complicating the situation is the fact that the public is not very good at distinguishing the scale of conflicts. In the public’s view, any use of military force is “war,” and all “wars” are big. Even if they start small, they inevitably become big. The historical record suggests otherwise, however. It is true that wars can escalate, but many do not. Wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq escalated, but conflicts in Grenada, Desert Fox, the Persian Gulf, and most recently Libya did not.
None of this is Obama’s fault.
What the president can be skewered for is his communications strategy. In his public appearances, Obama’s message and tone have been awful. At the G20 press conference in St. Petersburg, for example, he emphasized how hard the problem is, how this situation was forced upon him and how reluctant he is to get involved. All of this is true, but it is a terrible approach if you are trying to persuade the public to support you. If you didn’t know better, you would have thought he had already lost the authorization vote. His body language and tone were all depression and defeatism.
For people to rally behind the president, he needs a style and a message that inspires. He has to to be a little more like Ronald Reagan and a little less like Jimmy Carter. And no, that is not an endorsement of the Gipper over the saintly Georgian — or of military strikes over standing pat. Action against Syria may be a good idea or a bad idea, but it makes no sense for the president, having committed to the policy, to bungle the public engagement piece of it. If he wants convince the public of the importance of his cause, Obama needs to appeal to America’s passions — standing up to evil, defending the innocent, fulfilling its special role in the world. This has to be more about America, and how we see ourselves, than a message that says “this is difficult and dangerous, and we can’t achieve much, but we have to do it anyway.”
Perhaps this is just too tall a hill to climb at this point. A limited action in a post-Iraq world that promises to leave Assad and his chemicals in place would be a difficult sell in any case, but unless the president changes his approach, he will not win over the American people, no matter how wise or prudent his policy may be.