WASHINGTON – President Obama and his allies are readying for a week of unprecedented drama, initiating a high-stakes public-relations offensive in what even Obama has called a “heavy lift” to win public and congressional support for a military strike on Syria.
The White House effort includes appearances today by Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, on all five of the U.S. network talk shows.
Obama will follow that up on Monday with six separate television network interviews with the nation’s top news anchors.
And topping it all off will be a prime-time televised address Tuesday to the nation, a day before the Senate takes up the measure authorizing military action.
After failing to persuade allies at the G-20 summit in Russia last week to unite behind military action, Obama returned to Washington to press his request for congressional authorization for a “limited” military strike to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for what the United States said was a chemical weapons attack.
Obama’s difficulties were compounded in the Senate on Saturday when Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., who faces re-election next year in a state Obama lost in 2012, issued a statement saying he opposes U.S. military action in Syria “at this time” because the administration hasn’t proved “a compelling national security interest” or provided a clearly defined mission for an attack.
The Aug. 21 assault near Damascus killed more than 1,400 people, many of them children, according to U.S. intelligence.
“He’s got to emphasize the importance of this issue for credibility of the United States globally,” Stephen Hadley, a national security adviser to President George W. Bush, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt,” airing this weekend. “It’s going to be hard, but it’s really the only option.”
But it was clear Saturday that U.S. credibility wasn’t the only issue the administration sees as being on the line.
Obama is particularly emphasizing the moral issues he sees at stake and which his infamous “red line” so sharply delineated.
And to advance that notion, the Senate Intelligence Committee posted online on Saturday 13 videos that the administration showed last week to the panel and which the committee’s website said “claim to show victims of a chemical or poison gas attack.”
The videos, some even more graphic than ones released earlier, were compiled by the Open Source Center run by the Central Intelligence Agency. They show victims, adults and children alike, lying on a floor, convulsing and foaming at the mouth. And amid panicked screams and moans, they portray rows and rows of dead bodies.
The videos provide no evidence of who was responsible for the attack. But a U.S. intelligence report released last month assessed “with high confidence” that the Syrian government conducted the chemical weapons attack, although it stopped short of saying who gave the order to use the weapons and whether a rogue element of the regime could have been responsible.
The gruesome videotapes of the sarin gas attacks were also obtained by several major cable news outlets, inlcuding CNN and MSNBC.
The videos, seen by the administration as a major weapon in its arsenal of public persuasion, show scenes grossly horrific and unlike any other in Syria’s brutal civil war, where bombs and bullets have killed and maimed tens of thousands over the past 2½ years.
But in a war where only a fraction of the more than 100,000 Syrian deaths have come from poison gas – the Obama administration says more than 1,400 died in the attack – what is it about chemical weapons that set them apart in policy and perception?
Some experts say chemical weapons belong in a special category. They point to the moral and legal taboos that date to World War I, when the gassing of thousands of soldiers led to a worldwide treaty banning the use of these weapons. The experts also say these chemicals are not just repugnant but pose national security risks.
“The use of nerve gas or other types of deadly chemical agents clearly violates the widely and long-established norms of the international community,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a nonpartisan research group in Washington.
“Each time these rules are broken and there’s an inadequate response, the risk that some of the world’s most dangerous weapons will be used in even further atrocities is going to increase – that’s why here and why now,” he added.
But others contend there is no distinction and that the United States should focus on protecting Syrian civilians, not on preventing the use of a particular type of weapon against them.
“The Syrian regime commits war crimes and crimes against humanity every day,” said Rami Abdel-Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. “A war crime is a war crime.”
Obama, in his talk to the U.S. public about Syria on Tuesday night, has expressed confidence he can convince Americans that “limited and proportional” military action is necessary and that chemical warfare goes way beyond any international notion of decency and morality.
That, in short, is Obma’s red line.
W. Andrew Terrill, a research professor at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania, said the “red line” that Obama has cited shouldn’t be viewed as just an emotional response to horrific acts but as “cold, hard strategy. I think it gives us the moral high ground and we’re going to use the moral high ground when we get an opportunity to do so while pursuing our interests.”
But Dominic Tierney, an associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College and author of “How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War,” said Obama’s imposing of a red line on Syria can have a “perverse effect” because it implicitly tells Assad the United States won’t intervene if he stays away from using chemical agents to kill civilians.
“If we went to war to try to deter Assad from using chemical weapons – let’s say we succeed and ... instead (he) goes back to using conventional weapons,” he said. “Is that supposed to be a victory?”