Some of President Barack Obama’s top allies say the president misread a few crucial political forces when he asked Congress to support his bid to strike Syria.
Chief among Obama’s missteps, they say, was underestimating the nation’s profound weariness with military entanglements in the Middle East, fed by residual anger over the Iraq war‘s origins, and overestimating lawmakers’ willingness to make risky votes 14 months before the next congressional elections.
“I can’t understand the White House these days,” said Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., an early and enthusiastic endorser of a strike against Syria over last month’s chemical weapons attack. Rather than unexpectedly asking for Congress’ blessing on Aug. 31, Moran said, Obama might have quietly called House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi to say, “‘I’m thinking of sending this vote to the Congress. How do you think it might turn out?’”
“She would have said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’” Moran said. “She knows where the votes stand.”
In recent days, Obama put military decisions on hold and asked Congress to halt plans to vote on a strike authorization while diplomats explore Russia’s proposal to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control. The pause has given the president’s friends time to ponder why Congress, and especially the House, seemed to be moving against his push for military action against Syria’s government.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said calls and emails from his Baltimore district were running about 99-1 against military intervention in Syria. Many House colleagues, he said, report feedback nearly as one-sided.
Cummings said he told Obama at a recent meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus that “once he asked for Congress to give its consent, he also asked for the public’s consent.” Americans aren’t willing to grant it, Cummings said. And it’s asking too much of re-election-seeking lawmakers to defy such overwhelming emotions back home, he said.
“My constituents love the president,” Cummings added. “They are just tired of war.”
He said he also told Obama, “You’ve got to understand, you and future presidents will be held to a higher standard whenever the issue of using military force is concerned.” The main reason, Cummings said, is the nation’s unwillingness to forgive or forget President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq on eventually discredited claims about weapons of mass destruction and the likelihood of easy U.S. success.
If Obama had any hope of overcoming the reluctance by the public and Congress to strike Syria, several lawmakers said this week, he needed a concise, compelling argument. His team failed to marshal it, they said. They cited Secretary of State John Kerry‘s assurance of an “unbelievably small” U.S. military strike as one example of comments that left people scratching their heads.
“In times of crisis, the more clarity the better,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a strong supporter of U.S. intervention in Syria. “This has been confusing. For those who are inclined to support the president, it’s been pretty hard to nail down what the purpose of a military strike is.”
Graham said he thinks the White House “overestimated the revulsion people would have toward a chemical attack” that the administration blamed on President Bashar Assad’s government and said killed more than 1,400 Syrians, including hundreds of children. The administration, he said, didn’t adequately explain why Americans should be morally outraged — and militarily involved — by that chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21 after the United States stood by as an estimated 100,000 Syrians were killed by convention weapons during a 2½-year civil war.
“Is it really about HOW people died?” Graham said.
As the U.S. debate over Syria grew, public sentiment increasingly turned against the military role Obama advocated. A four-day Pew Research Center survey, which ended the day after Obama asked for congressional approval, found 48 percent of Americans opposed to airstrikes against Syria. A Pew poll conducted a week later found 63 percent of Americans opposed to the idea.
The White House says Obama fully understood the public relations difficulties he faced. The president knows “the American people and their representatives are understandably and justifiably weary of military conflict and wary of new military conflict,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday.
“The president acknowledged from the beginning that this would be a challenge,” Carney said. Obama used his nationally televised address Tuesday night, he said, “to lay out for the American people why Syria and the use of chemical weapons in Syria matter to the United States.”
Obama supporters cite other hurdles he faced. They include the tendency of many House Republicans to oppose almost anything Obama proposes, even if GOP leaders embrace it.
Obama quickly won support for a Syria strike from House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. Nonetheless, scores of House Republicans say they are certain or likely to vote against the president’s request if it reaches the House floor.
Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican who backs military action in Syria, told reporters, “A number of Republicans don’t have faith in President Obama’s ability to carry out the attacks.”
The White House says several Republican senators once advocated U.S. intervention in Syria, but they opposed Obama’s specific proposal.
Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said Obama was confronting public sentiments that may be insurmountable.
“The country is war-weary, and it’s very powerful,” Welch said. “People are burned by Iraq and Afghanistan.” Trying to explain how Syria would be different, he said, “is a tough lift.”
Associated Press writer Donna Cassata and News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.
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