When President Obama addresses the nation from the East Room of the White House tonight at 9:01pm, he will face one of the most challenging tasks of his presidency. The stakes are high. Syria has deployed chemical weapons against its own people, effectively torturing and killing thousands of men, women and children. President Obama pledged a year ago to respond to such a breach of international norms with force. But many parties remain skeptical about the wisdom, effectiveness and legality of a bombing campaign in Syria. And now a new, apparently inadvertent proposal from Secretary of State John Kerry, endorsed by Russia and Syria, might resolve the conflict without America resorting to explosives.
So when Obama takes the podium tonight, he will have a very small needle to thread.
There are three main audiences he needs to keep in mind: members of Congress, the American public and the Syrian regime.
* He needs to build his case to Congress that military intervention should still be authorized despite the potential mission’s unpopularity and despite the possible diplomatic solution in the works for Syria to forfeit its chemical arsenal and avoid bombing.
* He needs to reassure the American citizenry that he will not rush headlong into a drawn-out, costly, Iraq-style military action that a large proportion of the country opposes.
* He needs to impress upon Syria that he is nevertheless ready to send cruise missiles into Damascus, whether Congress approves the action or not, to keep up the pressure on Assad to follow through with the plan to trade weapons for peace and to maintain a credible threat.
And the trickiest part of all? Obama will need to deliver these contradictory messages while appearing resolute, clear and strong. Triangulation will make him appear weak to all three parties, yet he ignores any of them at his peril. He will also need to improve on John Kerry’s characterization of the mission as “unbelievably small” without inflating it so much that it appears untenably grand. The president’s speechwriters will need a nap when this is all done.
I will be tweeting live analysis of the president’s speech as it happens. To read my live-blog, I invite you to follow me on Twitter. Shortly after the speech, I will gather up my tweets and post them in this space.