President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry went before the American people on Friday to make their case for military intervention in Syria to a reluctant public.
“Now, we know that after a decade of conflict, the American people are tired of war,” Kerry said, speaking at the State Department. “Believe me, I am, too. But fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility.”
That responsibility entails ensuring that international strictures against the use of chemical weapons are maintained, the president said, speaking at the White House during a briefing with the presidents of Latvia and Estonia.
“The world has an obligation to make sure that we maintain the norms against the use of chemical weapons,” Obama said, adding that US national security interests are directly threatened by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s enormous stockpiles of chemical weapons.
Obama insisted he had not yet made a decision on military intervention, but few doubt that strikes against the Syrian regime are imminent.
Those strikes are going to be narrow, limited and with a specific purpose, the president said. “In no event” would there be boots on the ground or any protracted involvement in Syria’s bloody civil war.
Military action is necessary and legitimate, the White House insists, given the alleged chemical weapons attacks against the Syrian population on Aug. 21, which Western powers blame on Assad’s forces.
According to Kerry, the attacks killed 1,429 people, including 426 children.
“If we choose to live in the world where a thug and a murderer like Bashar al-Assad can gas thousands of his own people with impunity … there will be no end to the test of our resolve and the dangers that will flow from those others who believe that they can do as they will,” the secretary of state said.
Anchoring their remarks, the White House released a four-page government report that outlines the administration’s basis for assessing with “high confidence” that the Assad regime was squarely behind the chemical weapons attacks.
In less than three hours the morning of Aug. 21, three hospitals in the Damascus area received some 3,600 patients displaying nerve agent exposure symptoms, the report asserts. The administration has gathered “a substantial body of information that implicates the Syrian government’s responsibility in the chemical weapons attack,” it adds.
The evidence, Kerry said, is “as clear as it was compelling.”
But the administration’s certitude is not matched by other officials in the government.
“It’s not a slam dunk,” unidentified officials told the Associated Press, using terminology that summons the specter of Iraq, when the presence of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Saddam Hussein was given as a rationale for war — intelligence that later proved to be wrong.
According to the AP, “a report by the Office of the Director for National Intelligence outlining that evidence against Syria includes a few key caveats — including acknowledging that the US intelligence community no longer has the certainty it did six months ago of where the regime's chemical weapons are stored, nor does it have proof Assad ordered chemical weapons use.”
But none of that nuance was in evidence as the president and his top diplomat did their best to quell the public’s fears that the US is getting involved in yet another messy Middle East war, with no international mandate, no clear objective, and no defined strategy for achieving its goals.
These concerns were exacerbated Thursday evening, when one of Washington’s main allies, Britain, voted not to stand with the US on Syria.
"The British parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action," Cameron said after he lost a crucial vote in the House of Commons, adding that he would bow to the will of the House.
More from GlobalPost: Does the world's 'responsibility to protect' civilians justify a Syria strike?
The American public is largely opposed to US war in Syria, according to several recent polls.
Even those who do support some sort of intervention — more than 8 in 10 respondents, according to an NBC survey — insist that the administration should seek congressional approval before launching any military strike.
But no one is asking the lawmakers, despite repeated references to the administration’s “robust” consultations with Congress, which seem to have boiled down to a 90-minute phone call with select congressional leaders Thursday evening.
“Robust” was the word of the day; White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest used the term no fewer than 12 times in his Thursday briefing.
This is not playing well with Congress, however.
A bipartisan group of 140 lawmakers signed a letter to the White House demanding they be brought into the decision-making process on Syria.
“The Hill sentiment mixes frustration at the diminished role of Congress — and the increasing power of the presidency — in committing the nation to acts of war with a belief that lawmakers are the unheard voice of a war-weary nation wary of becoming embroiled in another conflict in the Middle East,” according to Politico.
Even the president’s own party is not standing firm: 54 Democratic congressman signed a letter urging the president to consult with the legislature.
“While we understand that as commander in chief you have a constitutional obligation to protect our national interests from direct attack, Congress has the constitutional obligation and power to approve military force,” the lawmakers said.
While they condemned what had happened in Syria, the tragedy, the lawmakers added, “should not draw us into an unwise war.”
But “war” is not being discussed — it is “intervention” or “military action” or “punitive strikes.”
Rhetoric cannot completely disguise the reality, however: if the White House, determined and largely alone, moves ahead with strikes, can it guarantee war won't follow?