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Talking diplomacy in Syria, Obama goes to Congress

WASHINGTON (AP) — With opposition to military action growing among Americans and lawmakers, President Barack Obama is heading to Congress on Tuesday with fresh hopes of a diplomatic breakthrough that would allow Syria's government to avert U.S. missile strikes if it surrenders its chemical weapons arsenal.

The ground Obama must cover in Syria address

CALVIN WOODWARD, Associated Press
NANCY BENAC, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — 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 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:


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 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."

Obama had planned to use the meetings with Democratic and Republican senators to personally lobby for his plan of targeted strikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces in retaliation for last month's massive chemical weapons attack outside of Damascus. Instead, he signaled in interviews ahead of his trip to Capitol Hill that new diplomacy involving Russia and others could eliminate the risks of a repeat chemical attack without requiring an American intervention. He presents his case to the American people Tuesday night.

"The key is, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, that we don't just trust, but we also verify," Obama told CBS. "The importance is to make sure that the international community has confidence that these chemical weapons are under control, that they are not being used, that potentially they are removed from Syria and that they are destroyed."

The dramatic shift in the president's tone came after weeks of threatening tough reprisals on the Assad regime and with his administration facing stiff resistance in Congress to any resolution that would authorize him to use military force against Syria. For the first time Monday, a majority of senators staking out positions or leaning in one direction were expressing opposition, according to an Associated Press survey. The count in the House was far more lopsided, with representatives rejecting Obama's plan by more than a 6-1 margin even as the leaders of both parties in the House professed their support.

For the Obama administration, presenting just the possibility of a diplomatic solution offered an "out" with it struggling to come up with the 60 votes needed for Senate passage of a use-of-force resolution. Reflecting the difficulty, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., unexpectedly postponed a test vote originally set for Wednesday on Obama's call for legislation explicitly backing a military strike. Reid cited ongoing "international discussions."

Obama said he'd still address the American people in prime time Tuesday. Only now, he stressed that strikes on Assad's government were but a "very narrow military option."

The president wasn't the only one happy to delay a showdown for at least a few days. Several lawmakers, conflicted by their desire to see Assad punished and their wariness about America getting pulled into another Middle East war, breathed sighs of relief. And Russia, Assad's biggest international backer, championed the path forward in the hope of preventing the instability that might arise from a broader, Iraq-like conflict involving the United States.

Syria said Tuesday it had accepted Russia's proposal to place its chemical weapons under international control for subsequent dismantling. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said after meeting with Russian parliament speaker that his government quickly agreed to the Russian initiative to "derail the U.S. aggression."

Meanwhile, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Russia is now working with Syria to prepare a detailed plan of action, which will be presented shortly. Lavrov said that Russia will then be ready to finalize the plan together with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain said Tuesday he would introduce an amendment to the Senate's Syria resolution that would require international monitors to verify that Syria is complying with the plan and to certify that certain compliance benchmarks be met.

Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the administration and members of Congress were looking for "some kind of straw" to put off military action, with Congress and the country so opposed.

"There are people that are looking for any way out of this," he said. On the Russian plan, he said: "I doubt that the administration takes it too seriously, but they'll explore it. They have to."

In his interviews, Obama conceded he might lose the vote in Congress and declined to say what he would do if lawmakers rejected him. But, he told CBS, he didn't expect a "succession of votes this week or anytime in the immediate future," a stunning reversal after days of furious lobbying and dozens of meetings and telephone calls with individual lawmakers.

The resolution would authorize limited military strikes for up to 90 days and expressly forbids U.S. ground troops in Syria for combat operations. Several Democrats and Republicans announced their opposition Monday, joining the growing list of members vowing to vote "no." Fewer came out in support and one previous advocate, Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., became an opponent Monday.

Lawmakers emerging from a classified briefing late Monday with Secretary of State John Kerry, national security adviser Susan Rice and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the administration was skeptical of the Russian offer but had not ruled it out. Rice told lawmakers that she had spent two-plus years battling Russia at the United Nations, where Moscow vetoed all resolutions condemning the Assad government.

Obama, who said he discussed the potential plan for Syria to surrender its chemical stockpiles with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week, was guarded in his assessment of its chance of success.

"There are a lot of stockpiles inside of Syria," he said. "It's one of the largest in the world. Let's see if they're serious."

But having committed to seeking congressional approval, Obama may have few other immediate options. Unable to confidently push for a vote, and fearful of what the impact of strikes without approval would mean for his final three years in office, diplomacy offers at least a pause for him while he seeks broader support.

Sixty-one percent of Americans want Congress to vote against authorization of U.S. military strikes in Syria, according to an Associated Press poll. About a quarter of Americans want lawmakers to support such action, with the remainder undecided. The poll, taken Sept. 6-8, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.

Republican hawk Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said concrete steps from Moscow were needed to prove its seriousness, including a binding Security Council resolution at the United Nations.

"The fear is it's a delaying tactic and the Russians are playing us like a fiddle along with Assad," Graham told reporters.


Associated Press writers Julie Pace, David Espo, Alan Fram, Erica Werner and Henry C. Jackson in Washington contributed to this report.

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