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In Syria Debate, Obama's Internal Dialogue Becomes Audible

President Obama's speeches about Syria have at times seemed to reveal his own internal struggle on the topic.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais

A surprise agreement between the U.S. and Russia, announced Saturday, calls for Syria to destroy all of its chemical weapons by mid-2014. The deal follows a chaotic week of seat-of-the-pants foreign policy.

Performing on the international stage, Obama and his Cabinet secretaries have offered up one plot twist after another, though it often seems as if the actors are working without a script.

Obama used his prime-time television address on Tuesday to make the case for a military strike on Syria after the deadly gas attack in August. Even as he did so, Obama said he understands Americans' strong opposition to another military action.

"I've spent four and a half years working to end wars, not to start them," he said. "Our troops are out of Iraq. Our troops are coming home from Afghanistan. And I know Americans want all of us in Washington, especially me, to concentrate on the task of building our nation here at home."

In trying to justify a military strike, it was almost as though the president was arguing with himself about why a chemical attack warranted involvement in a war he'd studiously avoided for more than two years. Presidential historian Michael Beschloss says Obama's speeches are unusual in the way they reveal his sometimes messy internal dialogue.

"He is not afraid to confess that there is ambiguity in the world," Beschloss says. "And sometimes there may be ambivalence in his own mind, and it is not an accident that a president with these qualities was elected after two terms of a president who was famously very self-certain in most of the things he said in public."

Beschloss says Obama's ambivalence was especially apparent two weeks ago, when the president announced his decision that the U.S. should strike Syria, then added in the very next breath that he planned to seek authorization from Congress first. Obama had surprised his own staff with the second part of that decision only the night before.

"We saw something two weeks ago that we normally don't see with most presidents, and that is a pretty spontaneous decision," he says. "One that was in full view, and one that did not necessarily show Barack Obama in the best light, but you do get an authentic sense of the man."

But where Beschloss sees authenticity — and a thoughtful wrestling over the proper role of the president — others see dithering and indecision. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said this week it's long past time for the president to "drop the pose of the reluctant warrior, and lead."

"What's needed in Syria is what's needed almost everywhere else in the world from America right now: a clear strategy and a president determined to carry it out," McConnell said. "What we've gotten instead is the same timid, reluctant leadership that I've seen from the president for nearly five years."

Congress appears unwilling to authorize a military strike, though, and Obama is reluctant to order one on his own. So this week, the White House seized on an alternative, proposed by Russian President Vladimir Putin: to have Syria surrender its chemical weapons to international observers.

Obama insists it was only the threat of military force that opened the door for that diplomatic track.

One White House aide acknowledged there have been a lot of twists and turns to this drama over the last few weeks. While the ending is not yet clear, the administration feels better about the story line than it did a week ago.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
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