Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Three questions for Obama on Syria

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
September 9, 2013 -- Updated 1035 GMT (1835 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: President Obama must answer basic questions to sell Syria move to the public
  • War-weary Americans want to know why U.S. should intervene, he says
  • Zelizer: Obama needs to explain reliability of intelligence, outline the aims of the mission

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America."

(CNN) -- President Barack Obama will speak to the nation Tuesday, trying to build public support for a military strike against Syria.

His request to Congress to endorse action reaches the House and Senate at an extraordinarily difficult moment. Vote counts suggest that the president might not win the support he is seeking.  

Democrats and Republicans are uncertain about backing the president. The public remains skeptical as well. According to one NBC poll, only 42% of the public endorsed using military force against Syria. After Afghanistan and Iraq, the nation is weary of war. The bar has been raised for further intervention.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

Although presidential speeches rarely are able to fundamentally reshape public opinion, Obama must give his strongest effort if he does not want to end up in an embarrassing situation for his administration and one that could undercut the military effort that he is proposing.

If Obama is going to deliver a speech that matters, he must answer some basic questions about the Syrian intervention:

Why are we entering this conflict?

For many Americans, the arguments behind American intervention in Syria remain murky. This is not just about Syria being a confusing and complex situation, but also has to do with a general uncertainty about the objectives of American foreign policy in 2013.

In each era of foreign policy, policymakers have put forth strong ideological arguments that framed public policy about war and peace. Each period had substantial numbers of dissenters, but at least there was something concrete to argue about. During the 1930s and early 1940s, the fight against fascism was the driving force behind decisions about intervention. "Yesterday, December 7, 1941 -- a date which will live in infamy -- the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan," President Franklin D. Roosevelt explained the next day, when asking Congress for a declaration of war.

Getting Congress on board
Exclusive: Classified Syria video released

From the mid-1940s through the late 1980s, the fight against communism was the focal point of policy. Since that time, the objectives of American foreign policy have been less clear. When President Truman asked for congressional support to use military power in Korea in July 1950, he said that the conflict in Korea "has made it clear, beyond all doubt, that the international Communist movement is willing to use armed invasion, to conquer independent nations."

In the early 1990s, policymakers turned their attention to rogue states such as Iraq that were said to pose dangers to the stability of key regions. After 9/11, attention turned to international terrorist networks like al Qaeda.

On September 20, 2001, President Bush told the nation, "The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends. It is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them."

The larger framework surrounding the Syrian intervention is less clear. The administration has offered a number of arguments as to why the United States needs to intervene, from the message it would send to Iran about nuclear weapons, to the urgency of responding to gross violations of human rights. The president must offer a compelling reason why a situation such as this deserves national resources. If humanitarian interventions are to become a new norm, the president should make the case and offer a set of coherent principles for future conflicts.

What is the justification for this intervention and is it based on sound intelligence?

One of the main sources of public cynicism about American foreign policy comes from the fact that presidents have often used incorrect information or purposely flawed data to justify military operations that result in huge human and financial costs. American history is filled with such examples.

The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, which provided President Lyndon Johnson the blanket authority he needed to expand America's presence in Vietnam and the region, was based on spurious data about alleged attacks on U.S. Navy destroyers by the North Vietnamese. Congress gave Johnson wide-ranging authority to conduct military operations. It was "like grandma's nightshirt, it covered everything," he later said.

President George W. Bush's request to Congress for the authorization to use force in Iraq in 2003 was justified through incorrect intelligence about the presence of weapons of mass destruction and untrue reports of connections between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.

Obama, who ran his 2008 campaign based on criticism of all the problems with Bush's war, needs to demonstrate to the public that he has made a decision based on the soundest of evidence.

The revelations about the National Security Agency have already raised public skepticism about the discrepancy between what Obama says in public and what he does behind the scenes. Without revealing sensitive information to the public, it is important that the president make a convincing case that the intelligence behind this decision is sound, that it has been examined and cross-examined, that the Syrian government did use chemical weapons and that the Syrians do pose a substantial threat to the region.

He needs to explain why chemical weapons pose a threat that deserves a military strike as opposed to other weapons or mechanisms of mass destruction. Why act here, but not with regard to other atrocities or risks? The nation cannot afford another war based on false premises.

What is the mission?  

Presidents have gone into many wars without a clear sense of what they hope to achieve. Once troops are sent into a war or even after the Air Force is sent in to strike targets, conflicts can take unpredictable turns and escalate quickly. If the administration doesn't articulate a clear sense of what it hopes to accomplish at the outset, it allows for open-ended possibilities for escalation.

When President George H.W. Bush went to war with Iraq in 1990, the confusion over the objectives led to great frustration when Americans saw that Hussein remained in power after the celebrations of U.S. victory had taken place. Bush's son's war in Iraq proved even more frustrating, as there was growing awareness that the administration was entering into a much broader mission of nation-building than many Americans had anticipated.

When the new government that emerged from the rubble in Iraq remained unstable and the U.S. seemed to be pouring endless resources into the country, many Americans were left with a sense that the operation had not been worthwhile.

Obama can't afford to make the the mistake of leaving his objectives ill-defined. It is possible that quick and targeted airstrikes will destroy the chemical weapons capacity of the Syrians, though that would still leave in place a dictator whom the president has characterized as inhumane and brutal. It is also possible that airstrikes would result in retaliation that would trigger a bigger conflict, which would in turn create greater pressure for regime change.

The president did the right thing by engaging Congress in this decision rather than trying to circumvent the legislative branch. But in this case, with the memories of Iraq looming large, he won't have luck just asking for blind support.

In his speech, the president must answer these questions in simple and direct terms. This would do a great deal to build confidence in the operation, and to build a foundation for longer term support of this intervention should it be needed.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 2323 GMT (0723 HKT)
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1906 GMT (0306 HKT)
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1649 GMT (0049 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1416 GMT (2216 HKT)
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1839 GMT (0239 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
ADVERTISEMENT