By Justin Sink - 09/05/13 10:00 AM EDT
President Obama is struggling to convince lawmakers, foreign leaders and the public that military action in Syria isn’t about him.
Opponents of a military intervention in Syria say the president is trying to save face after declaring the use of chemical weapons a “red line” that should not be crossed.
The idea that Obama’s motives are political is taking hold on both the left and right, underscoring the challenge he faces in securing support for a risky military venture abroad.
“That’s why you ought to be very careful about drawing lines in the sand, or red lines, because now he feels that he looks weak to both his colleagues in the United States as well as his international colleagues. I don’t think that is enough reason to go to war.”
Comedian Jon Stewart mocked Obama’s rationale for action in Syria this week, saying it boils down to, “We have to bomb Syria because we’re in 7th grade!”
It remains to be seen whether Obama can secure enough support in Congress for a missile barrage against the Syrian regime. Opposition is particularly strong in the House, where a growing number of Republicans have said they will vote “no.”
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said that if a Syria resolution passes Congress, “it’ll be because of loyalty of Democrats.”
“They just don’t want to see him shamed and humiliated on the national stage,” Holmes Norton said on "The Bill Press Show."
That the White House continues to field questions about the extent to which the military effort is personal underscores how Obama has struggled to persuade lawmakers on the necessity for action.
Administration officials recognize the threat of the Syria votes becoming a referendum on Obama and are increasingly trying to take him out of the equation as opposition to the strikes mounts.
Speaking in Stockholm on Wednesday, Obama insisted that the red line wasn’t his creation.
“I didn’t set a red line; the world set a red line,” Obama said. “The world set a red line when governments representing 98 percent of the world’s population said the use of chemical weapons are abhorrent. ... Congress set a red line when it ratified that treaty.”
He also declared that his “credibility is not on the line,” arguing instead that Congress would have to answer for failing to respond to a violation of international norms.
Back in Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry tried to discount those who “have tried to suggest that the debate that we're having today" was started by something Obama said.
“That is just not true. This is about the world's red line. It's about humanity's red line,” Kerry said during testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
But critics of the president argue that despite the administration’s insistence that there are greater geopolitical issues at play, the motivating force behind the Syria push is to prevent Obama from being embarrassed on the international stage.
They say that the White House’s call for a limited bombing campaign is evidence that the president is more concerned with a symbolic gesture than substantive foreign policy.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), who is undecided about whether to vote for a Syria resolution, said the country is “in this position now … because of [Obama’s] statement.”
"I think that when the president said he shouldn't cross a red line, he should have put a little more thought into it before he said it," McKeon told CNN.
Allies of the president on Syria say they wouldn’t support military strikes if national security weren’t at stake.
“I’m not interested in saving face for Obama,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a crucial Republican supporter of the Syria plan, told conservative radio host Mike Gallagher.
But the questions facing the president show he has a steep hill to climb in making the case for punishing Syria, observers say.
“You don’t really need to explain something away if it’s not an issue,” said Princeton University professor Julian Zelizer.
“If you have a very compelling reason [for strikes], these kinds of issues and this kind of politics will fade because it’s the mission or the fears people have that is overwhelming. Because that’s not there, some of these political issues have surfaced.”
The movement to conflate the military authorization with a referendum on Obama could prove particularly resonant among the Tea Party caucus in the House, according to Southern Methodist University professor Cal Jillson.
“The Republican Party has changed pretty dramatically over the past decade and has lost a lot of a very substantial neoconservative wing. … For a Tea Party caucus that is more isolationist and focused on undercutting costs, reducing our imprint abroad and, most of all, undercutting Obama at every opportunity,” he said.
But Jillson said the president’s three-day trip to Sweden and Russia might actually work in his favor. By leaving the country, GOP leadership and committee chairmen have more space to rally support, he said.
“It’s better for Obama to be out of town,” Jillson said.
“Russia is probably far enough away to give Republican leaders to quietly work their members without them hearing on their office TVs that Obama is out there making a speech, which would make it more difficult for them to come out and support it.”
But some Republicans say the vote is about Obama and his foreign policy stand, whether he likes it or not.
Asked about Obama’s remark that the “red line” wasn’t his creation, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) said the president was mistaken.
"He needs to go back and read his quote," Chambliss said.
— Jeremy Herb contributed.