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For Obama, Outrage Over Syria Is The Easy Part

A young girl receives treatment at a makeshift hospital in Damascus, Syria, after a suspected chemical weapons attack by the military.
A young girl receives treatment at a makeshift hospital in Damascus, Syria, after a suspected chemical weapons attack by the military.

The present Syrian crisis ranks among the most vexing moments of President Obama's presidency.

The recent heart-rending images of Syrian civilians, many of them young children apparently killed by chemical weapons used by the government of Bashar Assad, have raised the volume on calls for the president to act.

But while there's a clarity to the outrage itself, for Obama things quickly get murky.

The president had most likely hoped his earlier "red line" warning to the Syrian regime on the use of chemical weapons would have dissuaded Assad from using chemical weapons. It didn't.

Instead, now that the weapons have been used, foreign policy experts say Obama must use U.S. military force if only to maintain credibility in the eyes of the world. The administration has given every indication the president intends to use force.

Secretary of State John Kerry furthered that view in a brief statement he delivered Monday at the State Department:

"There is a reason why no matter what you believe about Syria, all peoples in all nations who believe in the cause of our common humanity must stand up to assure that there is accountability for the use of chemical weapons."

But the use of U.S. force by Obama is complicated by a variety of factors, not the least the attitude of the American people. Weary from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, many Americans are disinclined to use the U.S. military in Syria. Depending on the poll, majorities are opposed to U.S. military involvement or even providing war materiel to the Syrian opposition.

Then there's the U.S. military itself. In a letter that Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently sent to Democratic congressmen, the nation's top military officer explained that Syria is a confusing muddle of competing interests — none of whom necessarily want the same thing as the U.S. Weighing in to help the opposition as it is currently constituted could have the unintended consequence of eventually harming U.S. interests. The outcome of the Libya intervention testifies to that.

Obama does at least have support for military action from congressional Republicans like Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee. So that gives him some bipartisan cover.

But that doesn't make the decision any easier for a president who would rather focus on his domestic priorities than a foreign riddle wrapped in an enigma like Syria.

All in all, Syria makes the president's coming fiscal fights with congressional Republicans over raising the debt ceiling and funding the federal government beyond October seem like easy problems by comparison.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.
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