Quotes of the day

The Obama administration is making an all-out effort to win Americans’ support for a military strike against Syria ahead of the president’s scheduled Oval Office speech on Tuesday.

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough will begin the full court press by appearing on the Sunday morning talk shows to continue to make the president’s case that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ordered a chemical-weapon attack last month that killed more than 1,400 and that the United States must take punitive action…

A senior administration official told reporter this weekend the push to win public support will also include National Security Adviser Susan Rice making a speech at the New America Foundation on Monday. The speech will take place the same day another classified briefing is scheduled for the House, the chamber in which Democratic and Republican congressional members appear most skeptical of a strike, despite large support from Capitol Hill leadership.


With the United States threatening to attack Syria, U.S. and allied intelligence services are still trying to work out who ordered the poison gas attack on rebel-held neighborhoods near Damascus.

No direct link to President Bashar al-Assad or his inner circle has been publicly demonstrated, and some U.S. sources say intelligence experts are not sure whether the Syrian leader knew of the attack before it was launched or was only informed about it afterward.

While U.S. officials say Assad is responsible for the chemical weapons strike even if he did not directly order it, they have not been able to fully describe a chain of command for the August 21 attack in the Ghouta area east of the Syrian capital…

An analysis by the Congressional Research Service, a branch of the Library of Congress, reported that a declassified U.S. government paper summarizing intelligence findings concludes that Syrian government officials were “witting and directed” the gas attack. But the evidence of who ordered it was not watertight, the analysis said.


Marvin Kalb, author of The Road to War, a study of presidential use of force, agrees that Obama is setting no precedent in asking for congressional authorization. But Kalb is baffled by the way the president has gone about this. Obama is “building a new kind of precedent by first putting the world on notice that he has the authority to attack Syria and an attack is imminent—and then putting this projected attack on hold while he gets Congress to authorize it,” Kalb told National Journal. “He has, with this approach, reduced the power of a president’s word and America’s credibility in the troubled Middle East.” Residents of that volatile region are “scratching their heads” and asking, “What’s he really up to?” Kalb said, adding, “He is absolutely producing problems with respect to Iran.” Even before this, skepticism abounded that Obama meant what he had said about preventing Iran from gaining nuclear capability. “Now, the doubts have multiplied considerably,” Kalb said. No one can be sure how the president will respond to any evidence on Iran. Will he, as he is doing on Syria, ask Congress for authorization to strike Iran? Or will he, as he did in Libya, bypass Congress and act on his own authority?


As Obama steps up his push for congressional authorization for a strike on Syria, the president is coming under withering criticism by opinion leaders throughout the Middle East, according to a review by POLITICO and experts of Arabic- and English-language media in the region…

The increasingly unfavorable coverage Obama’s receiving in the Arab world – even [some] from the press in countries that support U.S. intervention in Syria – is doing harm to his image and influence, as well as further diminishing how America is perceived in the region, experts say. It hits especially hard coming at a time when Obama is looking anywhere he can, at home and abroad, to find allies for his plan to punish the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“There are (Arab) media who say the U.S. should do something and basically Obama is being a chicken shit about it,” said Lawrence Pintak, a former Middle East correspondent for CBS News and founding dean of The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. “The main talking point is that al-Assad needs to be stopped, this is a humanitarian crisis the U.S. needs to move. The second set is that Obama is showing a level of cowardice in turning to Congress for political cover, that it undermines American effectiveness.”


[I]f ever there was an “elephant” in a room, the Obama legacy is it.

A ‘no’ vote would be a “catastrophe” for Obama, said David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official who is now president of Garten Rothkopf, an international advisory firm.

“It would ratify the perception of him as a lame duck at one of the earliest points in recent presidential memory,” Rothkopf said. “He would appear to be weakened and unlikely to get much done during the remainder of his term.”

“I think a ‘no’ vote would be a huge slap at the president,” said George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University. “It would seem to tie his hands.”

It would hurt Obama even more if many Democrats – members of his own party – vote against him, which at the moment seems likely.


I was just talking to a Capitol Hill source who thinks there are maybe two dozen Republican votes for the authorization, no more — and there probably won’t be more. It’s hard to know because the situation is fluid, and the vote is so sensitive that Republicans members don’t even want the leadership keeping a tally of votes, for fear that it will lead to an effort to influence them…

If only a couple of dozen Republicans are in support, that means almost all Democrats have to vote in favor. Absent a big change that shifts dozens of votes all at once, my source expects the authorization to lose. “It’s hard to find a precedent for a president imploding on something this big,” he says.


“I’m sure a lot of people are focused on the political ramifications,” a House Democratic aide said.

Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), a veteran appropriator, said the failure of the Syria resolution would diminish Obama’s leverage in the fiscal battles.

“It doesn’t help him,” Moran said Friday by phone. “We need a maximally strong president to get us through this fiscal thicket. These are going to be very difficult votes.”

“Clearly a loss is a loss,” a Senate Democratic aide noted…

“Should the President lose the vote in Congress, he will be severely weakened in the eyes of public opinion, the media, the international crowd and the legislative branch,” The Hill columnist John Feehery said Friday on his blog.


Meanwhile, Americans already opposed to bombing Syria are melting the Capitol switch board. “Over 560 constituents have contacted Broun by phone and e-mail this week and only two of them support military action in Syria,” an aide to Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., told National Review. “We have had a little over 800 contacts to our DC and district offices,” an aide to Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, told Katrina Trinko, “with about 90 percent being against intervention.”

And while the Senate will probably still vote for war, it does not appear that the administration is changing many minds in their favor. “After nearly three hours behind closed doors, senators left a classified hearing on Syria unswayed by testimony from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey,” the Washington Examiner’s Tim Mak reported Thursday…

As bad as the situation looks now in the House, there still is a strong possibility that Democrats will rally around Obama and delivers the votes he needs to save his presidency. “At the end of the day, a lot of these Democrats are going to be with the president,” a House Democratic aide told Politico. “Because the choice is to vote against [the Syria resolution] and turn the president into a lame duck and destroy his credibility, or swallow it and vote for something that you’re not wild about. When you’re faced with that kind of decision, most of these fence-sitters are going to come aboard.”


Congressional aides in both parties tell me that the chances of President Obama winning House approval for military action in Syria are so bad they actually doubt the House would ultimately vote on it if failure seemed certain…

“I just don’t believe that if defeat is certain, the House leadership will want to see a president utterly humiliated on the House floor in a public vote,” one top aide to the Republican leadership told me. Should the full Senate vote to approve an attack on Syria — as still appears somewhat likely — the battle would shift to the House. “An attempt would be made to let the whole thing go away. I don’t think it would be done to give the GOP any extra leverage in debt-ceiling or budget negotiations — Obama isn’t the grateful type — but simply because the weakness it would demonstrate wouldn’t be good for the country,” the aide told me.


Radical-left actor Ed Asner was blunt with Paul Bond of The Hollywood Reporter about how celebrities won’t be mobilizing against military actions launched by Barack Obama: “A lot of people don’t want to feel anti-black by being opposed to Obama,” he said…

“We had a million people in the streets, for Christ’s sake, protesting Iraq, which was about as illegal as you could find. Did it matter? Is George Bush being tried in the high courts of justice?” asked Asner. “We’ve been so God-damned stung in this country by false wars, repeatedly, that, how can you believe in any just war with the history we have had?”

He feels sad he voted for Obama: “I voted for him, but I’m not proud. He hasn’t thrown himself on the funeral pyre. I wanted him to sacrifice himself. Instead, he has proved himself to be a corporatist, and as long as he’s a corporatist, he’s not my president,” Asner said. “A lot of people have lost hope — with the betrayals, the NSA spying … People aren’t getting active because ‘Who gives a shit?’ is essentially the bottom line.”


A point on how quickly public opinion has jelled. There is something going on here, a new distance between Washington and America that the Syria debate has forced into focus. The Syria debate isn’t, really, a struggle between libertarians and neoconservatives, or left and right, or Democrats and Republicans. That’s not its shape. It looks more like a fight between the country and Washington, between the broad American public and Washington’s central governing assumptions.

I’ve been thinking of the “wise men,” the foreign policy mandarins of the 1950s and ’60s, who so often and frustratingly counseled moderation, while a more passionate public, on right and left, was looking for action. “Ban the Bomb!” “Get Castro Out of Cuba.”

In the Syria argument, the moderating influence is the public, which doesn’t seem to have even basic confidence in Washington’s higher wisdom.

That would be a comment on more than Iraq. That would be a comment on the past five years, too.


I know that the American people are weary after a decade of war, even as the war in Iraq has ended, and the war in Afghanistan is winding down. That’s why we’re not putting our troops in the middle of somebody else’s war.

But we are the United States of America. We cannot turn a blind eye to images like the ones we’ve seen out of Syria.


[T]his really isn’t about Syria. The policy is not going to do anything materially to affect Syria. We may lob a few missiles in there. That’s just face-saving. Let’s face it. The real issue is the broader credibility of the president, the international credibility of the United States, especially vis-a-vis Iran.

This is really about Iran more than Syria. And by going to Congress and potentially getting slapped down, then our credibility vis-a-vis Iran is in shatters, and the president’s credibility at home is in shatters.

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