Will Obama's Zig-Zag Syria Message Cause Long-Term Damage?

It's been 22 days since the world learned of a chemical weapons attack in Syria. In that time, the administration's approach to the situation has zigged and zagged. Will the shifting message cause lasting damage to the Obama presidency?

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

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And I'm Robert Siegel. President Obama's handling of the Syria crisis has been criticized as muddled, uncertain and ad hoc. From drawing a red line he seemed reluctant to defend, to reversing himself on seeking congressional approval for military strikes, and now to talk of diplomacy and Geneva. That's where Secretary of State John Kerry is working with his Russian counterpart to put Syria's chemical weapons under international control.

But these shifts have come at a cost for President Obama. As NPR's Mara Liasson reports, even some of his supporters worry that he's undermined the power of his presidency.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: The story of Syria is still unfolding and the results are far from clear. But Rosa Brooks, a former Obama administration Defense Department official, says the hole President Obama is in today is partly of his own making.

ROSA BROOKS: I do think it's been a story of repeated miscalculations. And to be fair to him, it's an extraordinarily difficult situation in which the options ranged from rotten to even more rotten. But that being said, I think he's mishandled this very badly.

LIASSON: From the famous red line that went unenforced for two years to the dizzying series of pivots from imminent military action to congressional consultation and then to diplomacy, the twists and turns have been messy. But some of them, says former Clinton White House aide Bill Galston, have a logical explanation.

BILL GALSTON: The entire administration was set back on its heels by the unexpected rejection of an authorization to use force by the British Parliament. That changed their thinking fundamentally. They assumed that they would enjoy robust international support.

LIASSON: When British backing fell through, the president, desperate for support, took a risky gamble, asking Congress for authorization and he began delivering a message on Syria that's been so complex, aimed at satisfying so many conflicting constituencies, that it's been confusing. David Axelrod is a former top advisor to President Obama.

DAVID AXELROD: The process wasn't neat in part because the problem isn't neat, but there's no doubt that if the administration could do some things over, they probably would. I think the sequencing of his decision to take this to Congress probably wasn't optimal. There may have been a comment here or there they would take back. But ultimately, it's where they are now that's important and this diplomatic option came at a propitious time.

LIASSON: A propitious time because, as Rosa Brooks points out, the president was facing a crushing rejection from Congress.

BROOKS: I don't think you can say I'm going to go to Congress and get their authorization for this. You don't say that unless you're pretty sure you can get it or you hadn't done their homework first.

LIASSON: The White House was well aware of public aversion to military action, but they were shocked, once again, at the level of reflexive opposition from congressional Republicans, many of whom had been advocating military strikes, only to turn around and reject the president's request for authorization.

It's possible that after pursing the Russian diplomatic effort, the president could have a stronger argument for using force, but there are no signs of that now. Even after Mr. Obama's Tuesday night speech, opposition in Congress continues to grow.

BROOKS: Everybody's with him on it's awful, it's tragic, it's agonizing to watch. Everybody's with him on somebody ought to do something. But the case has not been persuasively made that this is the something that will make things better as opposed to this is the something that is only going to make things still worse.

LIASSON: The president's struggle to come up a coherent strategy on Syria has undermined the public's faith in his leadership. His dropping approval ratings reflect that. But to those who believe the administration's fumbling on Syria has undermined the power and credibility of the Obama presidency, historian Douglas Brinkley says, hold on, the president's Syrian crisis is not over yet.

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: I recall when I wrote a biography of Dean Acheson some years ago, Acheson did not like the way the Cuban missile crisis was being handled, but Kennedy got a result out of it in the end, with his brother doing some strange diplomacy with the Soviet Union about our Jupiter missiles in Turkey. Acheson's article that he wrote was called "A Homage To Plain Dumb Luck."

And while nobody would argue that the president's handling of Syria has been smooth and, at times, it hasn't even seemed really coherent, the end result might work.

LIASSON: And even if it doesn't work, for the moment, Mr. Obama is in a better place than he would be launching a military strike in express defiance of Congress or failing to act in what he said was the moral and strategic interest of the United States.

BRINKLEY: History plays tricks on people. Five years from now, we might be saying it was a bumpy road, but the president found a way to rid the Middle East of chemical weapons.

LIASSON: In other words, stumbling to peace is better than rushing to war. Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.

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