Wall Street Journal
August 28, 2013
As President Barack Obama weighs military action against Syria, a critical part of the White House deliberations has focused on how to lay out the case for U.S. involvement to Americans who are skeptical of another entanglement in the Middle East.
Officials say the administration will present some evidence tying the Assad regime to last week’s alleged chemical-weapons attack outside Damascus. White House officials on Tuesday continued to assert why the U.S. has a security interest in deterring such acts.
“National security is strengthened when we hold accountable those who violate international norms that are the foundation of global security, and ultimately, American security,” Vice President Joe Biden said.
At the same time, the White House is taking pains to cast any Syria assault in narrow terms, making clear that regime change wouldn’t be a military goal.
“I want to make clear that the options that we are considering are not about regime change,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said. “They are about responding to clear violation of an international standard.”
Mr. Obama’s effort to bring along a war-weary public hinges on whether he can persuade Americans that the U.S. can take military action against Syria without becoming drawn into a protracted war.
While polling has been scant in the week since the incident that has pushed Mr. Obama toward action, many public-opinion surveys in recent months have found that support for military intervention in Syria is low.
When asked in a June Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey to pick the one best option for responding to the Syrian government’s killing of protesters and civilians, only 15% of respondents backed military intervention. An even smaller share — some 11% — supported providing arms to the Syrian opposition.
The most popular options were to take no action, which won support from nearly one-quarter of respondents, and providing only humanitarian aid, which had the support of 42%.
The White House believes Mr. Obama, who has been reluctant to get involved in Syria in the past two years, has the legal authority to take military action without approval from Congress. A senior administration official said the president has no plans to call Congress back to Washington to debate or vote on such a measure.
At the same time, Mr. Obama doesn’t want to ignite a fight with Capitol Hill, given the stiff resistance facing his agenda there already and the lack of support among Americans for military intervention.
Mr. Obama came under criticism from some lawmakers for his 2011 decision to join the military mission in Libya without congressional approval. Now, the White House is stepping up its engagement with lawmakers in an attempt to blunt criticism that it is contemplating action against Syria without legislative consent.
House Republican aides said senior administration officials have been more proactive in keeping Congress informed about developments on Syria than they had been in the lead-up to U.S. involvement in Libya.
On Monday, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough called House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) to smooth any potential tensions, people familiar with the call said. A few hours earlier, Mr. Boehner’s office publicly called on the president to do a better job keeping congressional leaders apprised of his deliberations.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) was also briefed by the White House this week, as was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.).
In 2011, Mr. Obama was dismissive of congressional criticism that he overstepped presidential authority in Libya. The White House argued that Mr. Obama didn’t need congressional backing as stipulated in the 1973 War Powers Resolution, because the mission was limited in scope, with U.S. troops playing a supportive role. The president said the “fuss” on Capitol Hill was political.
The White House on Tuesday characterized the use of chemical weapons in Syria as a threat to U.S. national security, a declaration that could make the mission easier for Americans to accept and damp any demands that Mr. Obama seek lawmakers’ approval.
“I believe that, absolutely, allowing the use of chemical weapons on a significant scale to take place without a response would present a significant challenge to or threat to the United States’ national-security interests,” the White House’s Mr. Carney said on Tuesday.