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How to listen to Obama's speech on military action against Syria

September 09, 2013|By Michael Muskal
  • Demonstrators rally in Washington against any possible U.S. military action in Syria. President Obama will address the American people on Syria from the White House on Tuesday.
Demonstrators rally in Washington against any possible U.S. military… (Drew Angerer / Getty Images )

President Obama has launched a media blitz culminating in a speech to the nation urging military action against Syria. He will speak to diverse constituencies that have little in common: a war-weary U.S. public, a fractious Congress, nations worried about the impact of a strike. Here is a primer on how to listen to the president’s speech Tuesday.

What started the current crisis?

Syria has been locked in a civil war for more than two years, during which more than 100,000 people have died and more than 2 million people have fled to other countries as refugees.

The current crisis began when the United States accused the Syrian government of using poison gas on its own population on Aug. 21. More than 1,400 people, including women and children,  were killed in the attack which Syria blames on rebels, according to the U.S. Other estimates of the number of dead and injured vary, and some intelligence sources say the August incident was just the latest, and most deadly, of a series of attacks during the civil war.

What has the administration done?

Since August, Obama and top government officials have been trying to make the case for military action. It appeared that a missile attack was imminent. But then Obama decided to seek congressional approval for a military strike after the British Parliament rejected Prime Minister David Cameron’s bid for backing on the use of force. Obama is spending Monday speaking with anchors of six major American news networks as part of his campaign to build support and will go directly to the people Tuesday. In the background, his aides have been heavily lobbying Congress while seeking support from other nations. Most counts show that the U.S. Congress is reluctant to back force while many countries are equally skittish.

DOCUMENT: U.S. chemical weapons intelligence report

What will Obama probably say to the American people?

The president is expected to emphasize the horror of chemical warfare, the vulnerability of the victims, particularly women and children, killed in the alleged Aug. 21 attack and the world’s necessity to insist that some weapons are so dire, they are justly forbidden. He will insist that Syria must be punished to prevent future use of of such weapons and that we must send a message to the rest of the world that the United States is tough enough to act to fulfill what it sees as its commitment to stop prohibited weapons wherever they may be.

What do Americans think about this?

In town hall meetings during the congressional recess and in polls, most Americans don’t accept that the humanitarian argument is sufficient to justify a military strike. After wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans tell pollsters that they want to hear why such a strike is in U.S. interest.

Nearly 6 in 10 Americans think Congress should not authorize limited military action in Syria, with roughly 7 in 10 saying that airstrikes against Syria would not achieve any significant goals for the United States and that the U.S. does not have any national interest in Syria, according to a CNN/ORC International poll released Monday.

In a Gallup poll, those surveyed oppose U.S. military action, 51% to 36%. Americans who oppose U.S. military action in Syria said they do so because the conflict is not the country's business, is not well thought out or won't work, and would have negative consequences for the United States, according to the poll released Monday.

What about in Congress?

The issue has created unusual schisms among the political parties. There are hawks in both parties who want the United States to act forcefully in supporting the rebels and those in both parties who want the U.S. to stay out. Given the chasms in both houses, it is unlikely that there is a single policy that bridges all differences, and trying to win votes on one side could cost votes from the other. For example, GOP hawks such as Arizona Sen. John McCain want the United States to do more to support the rebels. Many Democrats, who would ordinarily support Obama on most issues, want the congressional authorization to be as narrow as possible.

Obama has said he favored a limited action of a few days with missiles and opposes U.S. troops being sent to Syria. His administration began emphasizing last week that the attack would also degrade important military targets including command-and-control centers in Syria. The new emphasis on military targets is designed to give an added rationale for military action.

The Senate is expected to vote first on authorization, followed by the House. Obama has also reserved the right to attack even if neither body passes a resolution of support. The most interesting political scenario would be Obama's response to a split vote: Senate approval and House rejection.

What of the rest of the world?

Syria has been known for decades as a dictatorial regime held together by internal force. Mideast countries, including official adversaries such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, would be pleased if the Assad government fell, and both would welcome a U.S. show of might. Syrian allies, including Russia, oppose U.S. force as destabilizing to a region crucial to oil production. There are other concerns, including retaliatory terrorist attacks, and reaction from Iran, where a confrontation over the nation's development of nuclear weapons has been brewing.

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