After it was alleged that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons on his own people, the Obama Administration called on Congress to grant permission to conduct a military strike on the Assad Regime. Since resolving toward this action, the Obama Administration has sought to frame a strike in humanitarian terms.
In his statement on September 1 in the Rose Garden, President Barack Obama said “But we are the United States of America, and we cannot and must not turn a blind eye to what happened in Damascus.” Similarly, at a press conference in Sweden, Obama said ““My credibility is not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line. And America and Congress’ credibility is on the line because we give lip service to the notion that these international norms are important.”
President Obama made similar statements when he made a statement in the Cross Hall of the White House, saying “When dictators commit atrocities, they depend upon the world to look the other way until those horrifying pictures fade from memory.”
The premise of the Obama Administration’s rationale is that the international community has general rules of how to conduct war and conflict. By Assad using these weapons on his own people, he violated this rule. In the same vein, it is incumbent for the international community to respond to Assad’s use chemical weapons through intervention to say that using chemical weapons is unacceptable and seeks to use Assad as a warning to other countries and actors.
In his article,” Rhetoric without responsibility: the attraction of ‘ethical’ foreign policy,” (2003) David Chandler wrote that “Ethical concerns, such as the human rights of others, seem to provide a moral framework which can project a sphere of agreement and consensus and point beyond the relativism and pessimism of our times.” Similarly, Obama’s push for intervention on humanitarian terms might be an attempt to win Congressional support, as many policies he has endorsed have become radioactive once he supported them, as has been exemplified by his hands off approach to immigration reform.
By using the medium of television and a direct address to the American people, he is employing a classic tool in the arsenal of presidents to influence discussion. In a 1989 study, Dennis Simon and Charles W. Ostrom Jr. said that often speeches are seen as an effective tool for winning public opinion. But In their research, they saw that speeches made by Presidents have little impact and only have a discernible impact during a salient event. (1989). Similarly, polls show that even after Obama’s speech, support for military intervention is low.
However, at times, when stepping out the world stage, some leaders disregard public opinion. Chandler says that to some leaders, democratic support could not even be part of the equation, saying, “In fact, the claims for universal moral accountability undermine the notion of democratic accountability itself, by replacing democratic accountability to citizens of the nation state with moral accountability to non-citizens who cannot vote or hold the government accountable.” It is perhaps because of this unwillingness to intervene that Obama said he reserved the right to intervene in Syria without the approval of Congress but said the country would be better served with a positive vote.
By Obama making the decision to intervene on humanitarian grounds, he has also made the decision about what his grounds would be for using military force when American security interests are not directly at stake. However, he faces a tide of public opinion largely wary of military intervention in Syria. Furthermore, it is not fully clear whether a speech can change the opinion of the populace.
Simon, Dennis, and Charles Ostrom. “THE IMPACT OF TELEVISED SPEECHES AND FOREIGN TRAVEL ON PRESIDENTIAL APPROVAL.” Public Opinion Quarterly 531.1 (1989). Web. 6 Sept. 2013.
Chandler, David. “Rhetoric without responsibility: the attraction of ‘ethical’ foreign policy.” British Journal of Politics and International Relations 5.1 (2003).