President Barack Obama is grasping all his tools of persuasion in trying to turn around public opinion and rally congressional support for a strike against Syria. He’s got tricky ground to cover in his Oval Office address Tuesday night and acknowledged on the eve of it that Americans don’t back his course.
A guide to weak spots in his case, and some opportunities, in advance of the speech:
LATE TO THE BULLY PULPIT
Until recent days, Secretary of State John Kerry was the point man both with Congress and the public in arguing that Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons on its people justifies a U.S. attack. Obama now has stepped up, with a series of TV network interviews Monday setting the stage for his White House remarks.
He does so as a potential diplomatic breakthrough emerges, with Syria now suggesting it might surrender its chemical weapons to international control to avoid a U.S. strike. The president argues he needs to “maintain and move forward with a credible threat of military pressure” if that development is to come to anything, so congressional approval of military action is at least as important as before.
To those who study the psychology of persuasion in public opinion and the marketplace, Obama still has opportunities to exploit. “I think people understand the danger of Syria using chemical weapons and the danger of looking the other way,” says Eric Dezenhall, a crisis management consultant and author of “Damage Control.” ”This is Obama’s greatest leverage point.”
Marketing scholar Deborah Mitchell, who teaches product and brand management at Ohio State University, says demand for a product (the Syria plan) is best stirred by appealing to the consumer (the public), not the retailer (Congress), and says, “I’m shocked that he has hasn’t been going straight to the American people” until now.
She thinks Obama would improve his chances by calling up moral outrage over the Aug. 21 chemical attack near Damascus that the U.S. says killed more than 1,400 people, setting aside complex legal and diplomatic arguments and going hard for the gut. “It is in our DNA as Americans to be against crimes against humanity,” she said. To play on that “would be like throwing seeds on fertile ground. People’s minds are just waiting for it but he’s not doing it. He’s getting bogged down.”
The administration moved in that direction recently, releasing a DVD compilation of videos highlighting attack victims, shown earlier to senators in a classified briefing. “As a parent, I cannot look at those pictures — those little children laying on the ground, their eyes glassy, their bodies twitching — and not think of my own two kids,” Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, said Monday.
Andrew J. Polsky, political science professor at Hunter College and author of “Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War,” questions whether it’s enough to reach for the high moral ground.
“There is just no sense here that American interests are directly implicated,” he said, “so then you’re forced to make arguments about the general humanitarian need to intervene. And the evidence that these general humanitarian needs will drive the public to support intervention is very small. The reason why there are permanent refugee camps dotting much of the world where civil strife has broken out is because, in fact, world opinion doesn’t get moved by these kinds of tragedies.”
In short, he said: “This is not something that an advertising campaign solves for you. It’s not a matter of finding the right package or the right jingle to sell it. The product itself is too suspect. If the goal is to sell intervention, then this is probably the best effort that they can make.”
In an Associated Press poll on the eve of the speech, 61 percent opposed congressional authorization of military strikes against Syria, including majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents, while 26 percent favored a vote supporting such action.
“Right now, the American people are not persuaded,” Obama said on Fox News during his round of interviews. On PBS: “I’m not sure that we’re ever going to get a majority of the American people, after over a decade of war, after what happened in Iraq, to say that any military action, particularly in the Middle East, makes sense, in the absence of some direct threat or attack against us.”
THE TRUST-US FACTOR
The country has not been shown proof that President Bashar Assad or his inner circle was behind the chemical attack that crossed Obama’s “red line” for action. So Americans have been left to take it on faith — or not — that the U.S. has the goods on Assad but can’t share this sensitive intelligence. Or that the case is persuasive enough even absent proof.
“They don’t know what I know,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said of the public.
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough has conceded he could not offer “irrefutable, beyond-a-reasonable-doubt evidence” that Assad’s government was behind the attack, because he said intelligence doesn’t work that way. Instead, a “common-sense test” suggests Assad was to blame, he said.
It’s clear that presidential credibility is a problem in this debate. But which president? Obama, George W. Bush, or both?
No one has forgotten the passionate, persuasive — and bogus — bill of particulars the Bush administration used to justify invading Iraq before it was discovered that Saddam Hussein did not possess weapons of mass destruction after all. Even among Obama’s supporters, who trust him, there’s a worry about being fooled again.
To sway opinion in Congress and the country, U.S. officials have emphasized the deaths of children in the Aug. 21 attack, shared graphic video with lawmakers and cited video and images that are in public circulation and are purported to show the aftermath of gassing. Without establishing who was behind the attack, these images prompted visceral outrage in Congress — one effective example of going for the gut.
“This is the indiscriminate, inconceivable horror of chemical weapons,” Kerry told lawmakers. “This is what Assad did to his own people.”
In recent days, though, The New York Times posted a video smuggled from Syria showing rebels executing seven captured Syrian soldiers and dumping their bodies in a well, in April 2012. Several subsequent acts of savagery by elements of the Syrian opposition have been similarly documented — and cited by critics of U.S. intervention to show that rogues are on both sides of the civil war.
“It’s a powerful optic, and a bad one for Obama,” Dezenhall said. “You want to help THESE guys?” The video feeds into the perception that Syria is “a mess that you can see your way into, but not out of, and that’s top of mind right now.”
Polsky, the Hunter College professor, likens this period to the aftermath of the Korean and Vietnam wars, one of intervention fatigue.
“The kind of intervention the American people will tolerate now is one of virtually no possibility of blowback, no possibility of American casualties, of generating attacks on Americans elsewhere,” he said. “But that kind of intervention is unlikely, and that’s putting it generously, unlikely to yield any meaningful results in Syria today. So you are largely reduced to the claim that American credibility would be damaged seriously by the failure to respond.”
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