WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Barack Obama will spend much of this week trying to convince Americans and Congress that a military strike on Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons is justified, something he has failed to do with world leaders despite dozens of personal phone calls and face-to-face appeals.
The two allies Obama thought he could count on for military support, Great Britain and France, are not standing beside him. The British House of Commons denied Prime Minister David Cameron's request for military authorization and French President Francois Hollande, an early advocate of force, now says he wants to see what the United Nations weapons inspectors' report says later this month.
The European Union's foreign-policy chief, Catherine Ashton, summed up Europe's wariness at the end of a foreign ministers meeting on September 7 when she said: "We note the ongoing UN investigation on the August 21 attack and further investigations on other chemical-weapons attacks carried out in this conflict. It hopes a preliminary report of this first investigation can be released as soon as possible and welcomes President Hollande's statement to wait for this report before any further action."
Administration officials have made the case that Obama has broad international support for a military strike by pointing to the growing list of countries who have condemned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for an August 21 chemical-weapons attack that killed more than 1,400 civilians, and endorsed a "strong international response."
On September 9, the White House released an updated list of 26 countries
, including the United States, who have signed a joint statement to that effect. The group includes major allies like Canada, Germany, Australia, Turkey, and the United Kingdom, as well as smaller countries like Albania, Honduras, and Kosovo. The Arab states of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are also on board.
Different Degrees Of Support
Nowhere does the declaration mention military strikes, but the White House has characterized it as a statement that "explicitly supports the efforts undertaken by the United States and other countries to reinforce the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons."
But how do they support it?
The deliberate vagueness of the administration's description of its international support almost certainly covers a wide spectrum of offered assistance and reflects its desire to make its list of partners as long as possible (as well as the diplomatic prohibition on speaking for other countries).
It's safe to say that Honduras isn't in a position to offer fighter jets, but a political endorsement, yes. On the other hand, Turkey probably offered Washington more than a slap on the back and a "good luck!"
Administration officials have repeatedly stressed that some countries have made private commitments to Washington, and that discussions with foreign leaders are fluid and ongoing. The "trend line" of support, a State Department spokesperson said last week, is positive. But the lack of specifics could weaken Obama's case before Congress.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry testified before House and Senate committees last week that the United States was far from isolated in its desire to deter Assad from future use of chemical weapons. "Thirty-one countries or organizations have stated publicly, or privately, that the Assad regime is responsible for this attack -- and that was before our evidence package was put together -- and 34 countries or organizations have indicated that if the allegations proved to be true, they would support some form of action against Syria," he said.
He said that in the Middle East region, "there are a number of countries...that have offered to be part of this operation." He declined to name them, saying he would let them "speak for themselves," but added that "there are more countries who have offered to be part of this operation than our military currently believes we need."
But Representative Gregory Meeks (Democratic-New York), who sits on the House Committee On Foreign Affairs that Kerry testified before, told "Foreign Policy" magazine that because he knew of no other country "using military at all," he was not convinced he should vote to authorize a U.S. strike. "We don't have NATO, we don't have the Arab League, [and] we don't have the United Nations," Meeks said. "This is an international violation, [it] therefore it needs an international response."
What that response will look like is still evolving.
On September 9, as Obama did back-to-back interviews with several TV news stations to make his case for military action, Kerry spoke by phone to his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, possibly to discuss a potential point of diplomatic agreement on the crisis.
Moscow has urged Syria to put its chemical-weapons stockpile under international control, echoing Kerry's suggestion that Assad could avoid a strike by surrendering all his chemical weapons within a week. A top national-security aide to Obama said the White House planned to take a "hard look" at the proposal.