WASHINGTON — When it comes to lobbying Congress and the public to back his plans in Syria, Tuesday was perhaps President Obama’s busiest day yet.
First he spent more than two hours at the Capitol meeting with senators to make his case. In the evening, Obama went on television to pitch his plan to the country. With support for a military strike dwindling both in Congress and in the public, lawmakers on both sides of the issue said it’s more important than ever that Obama justify why there should be an attack on Syria if an emerging diplomatic solution fails.
“With the president scheduled to meet with members of the Senate and to address the nation tonight,” Sen. Al Franken, who has backed a narrow military strike in Syria, said early Tuesday, “I urge him to explain how the United States will deal with the risks and unintended consequences of a possible attack and how we will avoid getting mired in a broader conflict.”
Obama’s message Tuesday night was not a new one: He said the United States has both moral and strategic incentives to discourage chemical weapons attacks, starting with Syria, and that if Americans could only see the results of such an attack, they’d back intervening, too. He looked to assure viewers he was keeping the United States off the “slippery slope to another war,” and said any military action in Syria would be a “limited strike” focused on “deterring the use of chemical weapons, and degrading [President Bashar] Assad’s capabilities” to use them.
Obama had yet to take that message directly to public, but lawmakers have heard some variation of it every day since he said they’d have a vote a Syria attack.
But support for a military strike has been dwindling on the Hill even before Obama began his full court press. A handful of senators who had previously been on the fence about a military strike announced that they’d oppose a resolution authorizing one on Tuesday. Franken, who has backed a strike, said he was undecided on the authorization resolution currently up in Congress because it looks too broad for his tastes. Most members in both chambers are either opposing or inclined to oppose military action, if you believe many media whip counting operations, and an attack resolution would likely fail if put to a vote this week.
In some cases, the more members hear about Obama’s plans, the more uncomfortable they are. Minnesota Republican Rep. John Kline said Tuesday he’ll oppose a military intervention in Syria, even though he said last week he was open to one. After he dug into the Obama administration’s evidence and their stated military objectives, “It’s not clear that the mission would do what I thought needed to be done,” he said.
Kline had hoped a military strike would reinforce United States’ credibility with countries that cross American “red lines,” like chemical weapons use. Obama’s plans to “degrade and deter” Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities don’t fit with that, he said.
“The more I learned, the more I heard, the more it became clear to me that there is no justification for the United States to go it alone,” he said.
Meanwhile, the American public is turning on plans to attack Syria — 63 percent oppose such a strike, according to Pew, up 15 points from last week.
So Obama’s speech Tuesday was originally meant to try turning those numbers around — at least until a potential diplomatic solution, in which Syria turns over its weapons to the international community, emerged on Monday night.
“It’s too early to tell whether this offer will succeed, and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments,” Obama said Tuesday. “But this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force.”
Obama said there should be no congressional vote until the diplomatic action runs its course, and lawmakers are banking on the plan, brokered by Russia, bailing them out from having to case a vote on a Syria strike. Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar has thus far kept quiet on whether she’d support such an attack, but in a statement, called the diplomatic maneuverings a “positive development.”
“Over the past two weeks I have strongly urged the administration to work toward a diplomatic solution,” she said. “During today’s meeting, the president made clear that the administration wanted to work with other countries to secure the chemical weapons before Congress considers any resolution.”
Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen co-sponsored a bill Tuesday calling for the United Nations to establish a war crimes tribunal for chemical weapons use in Syria. He said a diplomatic solution should be a top priority for the United States and the international community, even if he was “circumspect” about Russia’s intentions, given its friendly relationship with Syria.
But he ruled out supporting a military strike, at least right now.
“I’ll look at anything that comes before me,” he said, “but what I have before me right now, I do not support.”
Rep. Michele Bachmann — who said last week that Russian President Vladimir Putin could be key to removing Assad from office — told the St. Cloud Times she backs the diplomatic path. Two Minnesota Democrats with different takes on the Syria — pro-intervention Betty McCollum and strike opponent Rick Nolan — put out statements after Obama’s speech offering hope for a negotiated end, not a military one, to chemical weapons use in Syria.
“I applaud the president both for bringing the momentous question of war and peace with Syria before the Congress, and for pursuing a diplomatic solution,” Nolan said. “His speech tonight gives us reason for cautious optimism that a non-military path can be found.”
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry