U.S. President Barack Obama listens to comments during a working session at a G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia on Friday, Sept. 6, 2013. • AP Photo/Dimitar Dilkoff, Pool
Ten days ago President Barack Obama decided not to go it alone by personally ordering military strikes on Syria - "a shot across the bow," as he called it. The move came amid reports of Syria's probable use of chemical weapons on its own citizens. The president instead called for congressional approval of such strikes.
Debate has since swirled about whether this decision was a plus or minus for executive power. Critics claim that it was a display of weakness on the president's part, undermining not only his own war powers but that of his successors, as well. Boosters harbor a different thought: the president chose the option of going to Congress, and therefore it suggests of sense of presidential superiority in matters of war and peace.
What many can agree on, though, is that the president's air of ambivalence about the right policy toward Syria - who's to sanction the action (Congress or the president), whose red line is it anyway (Obama now says that it is not his red line but the American people's and the international community's), and how big a strike should it be (big enough to make a difference but not to remove President Bashar al-Assad from power, once Obama's goal) - has undermined what he wants to achieve. And, when Obama speaks about the atrocities that have been committed, he is much less passionate than either his Secretary of State John Kerry or his United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power: "I want people to understand that gassing innocent people...is not something we do. It's prohibited in active wars between countries. We certainly don't do it against kids. And we've got to stand up for that principle."
As a result, a lot is riding on President Obama's prime-time television address to the nation. This is not something he likes to do. Obama prefers the smell of the grease paint and the roar of the crowd, reacting to a real audience on the road. But the seriousness and significance of this speech - on the eve of the 12th anniversary of 9/11 - calls for the White House as a backdrop. The president will have to answer: Why should the U.S. take this action? What will happen if we do? What will happen if we don't? Right now, over 50 percent of those polled by CNN and Gallup say they are against military strikes on Syria. It will be a very tough sell.
But, luck may be on the president's side. A move may be afoot by Russia to persuade Syrian president al-Assad to hand over his country's chemical weapons to international inspectors. As President Obama said Monday, "We are gonna run this to the ground."
If military strikes are averted by this diplomatic maneuver, the administration will probably claim that it brought the pressure to bear. However, the situation remains that there is still a deadly civil war raging in Syria with untold numbers gassed, millions of refugees, and President Bashar al-Assad still in power. The jury's still out on whether President Obama has enhanced the power of the presidency.
Eileen Shields-West is author of "The World Almanac of Political Campaigns" (1992), and edited and contributed to "Choosing the Right Educational Path for Your Child" (2008).