Obama to Put It All on the Line in Syria Speech

The president must convincingly explain why military intervention in the Middle Eastern nation is necessary.

Posted: 09/10/2013 09:47 AM EDT

Speaking from Sweden last week, a defensive President Obama said that his credibility was not on the line when it comes to the crisis in Syria. Some might argue that the opposite is true.

After more than a week spent trying to sell Syrian air strikes to the international community and congressional lawmakers back home, the president will on Tuesday night make his case to the American public in a primetime speech delivered from the East Room of the White House.

He will essentially be asking for their trust on an extremely controversial issue. Trust that the Syrian government has indeed used chemical weapons despite denials from President Bashar al-Assad. Trust that such action presents a threat to U.S. national security. And perhaps most important, trust that any intervention will be limited in time and scope and with no boots on the ground.

It's a lot to ask of a war weary and skeptical nation still recovering from a request made by former President George W. Bush more than 10 years ago to take a similar leap of faith.

"It's a hard sell," said Howard University political scientist Michael Fauntroy. "Obama has got to use this speech to turn around people who do not support this plan. It may well be the biggest speech of his presidency."

He added that much of the resistance from lawmakers and everyday Americans alike is a residual reaction based on the war in Iraq.

"They don't want to go down that road again," Fauntroy said. "But you also have some Republicans who won't support the president no matter what, even though they're probably in agreement with him on this issue."

Credibility with other so-called rogue nations, such as Iran or North Korea, also is a big part of the administration's argument for action in Syria. In a conference call with reporters Monday, a senior administration official spoke as Obama previously has of the message inaction will send not just to Syria, but rogue nations like Iran and North Korea.

They are watching very closely to see what decision the U.S. makes as are groups like Hezbollah. Inaction could lead them to decide that they can start using chemical weapons on the battlefield and since the U.S is not willing to uphold the prohibition their use, they'll tell themselves, 'Let's see what we may be able to get away with as well,'" the official warned. And as a result they will have no incentive to seek diplomatic solutions.

Highlighting the difficulty of Obama's task is that in addition to several network interviews on Monday, he spent an unscheduled hour with members of the Congressional Black Caucus to make his case.

"He clarified a lot of issues but the jury's still out for most members of the caucus because we have to digest what he said, what he says Tuesday and will continue to hear more information," said Rep. Elijah Cummings.

The Maryland lawmaker was very pleased that Obama took the time to join their briefing with National Security Adviser Susan Rice, but left the meeting unconvinced that striking Syria is the right thing to do.

Missouri Rep. Emanuel Cleaver also is leaning toward no, in part because of his constituents' overwhelming opposition to a military intervention. He and other African-American lawmakers would love to support the president on this issue, but have had to ask themselves, "Were we elected to support Barack Obama or represent our districts?"

Complicating the issue is a plan by the Russian government to take control of the Syrian government's chemical weapons. But Cummings said that while Obama will certainly consider the proposal and try to determine how sincere it is, he doesn't beieve it will stop the president from continuing to make his own argument.

So, what happens if Congress withholds approval?

"Well, then he's got a problem and will have to figure out another way to get to the same end," Fauntroy said. "It was a really smart move to go to Congress instead of making the decision [about Syria] alone. Some of these folks have been calling him weak on this for forever and now that he's going to do what they 've been wanting him to do, they can't now say never mind."

Fauntroy believes Obama will ultimately sway lawmakers, "but it won't be easy."

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(Photo: AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, file)

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