The Cost of Selling Intervention

There is no rhetoric President Obama can deploy that will lower the reputational price America will pay for intervening in Syria, argue Bessma Momani and Claire Schachter.

By: /
9 September, 2013
Bessma Momani
By: Bessma Momani

Professor at the University of Waterloo’s Balsillie School of International Affairs and a CIGI senior fellow

The world has little patience for the Assad regime at this point. With hundreds of thousands of dead, 2 million refugees, half of which are children, and 4 million internally displaced throughout the Syrian territory, there is no shortage of victims and witnesses to President Assad’s brutality. Assad’s attempt to counter Obama’s media offensive with a television interview will not redeem his image.

And yet it is the Obama administration’s image, and that of the United States, that are guaranteed to suffer as a result of President Obama’s decision to ‘sell’ intervention in Syria. Why? Because the case for intervention cannot be made in a way that will get Obama the votes he needs without further alienating the Arab world.Swinging back and forth in his strike sales pitch from a moral to a geo-strategic rationale is costing Obama hearts and minds that he cannot afford to lose in the Middle East. The rhetoric he is using in his efforts to convince constituents at home will further entrench long-standing skepticism of America’s willingness to act multilaterally. It will also guarantee that a U.S.-led strike is particularly poorly received in the Arab and Muslim world, much of which has already suffered from misguided U.S. geo-strategy.

The debate within the United States is full of binaries – you are either ‘for or against the military strike against Syria’ and ‘pro or anti Assad’. These simplistic semantics are doomed to estrange the vast majority of Arabs and Muslims who do not support either side. The Western media is portraying those Arab governments offering quiet support for military intervention as weak, criticizing them for failing to take a more public stance against Assad and rally their people behind the United States. This blunt coverage epitomizes how little understand there is of the complex dynamics at play in and around Syria.

Lack of understanding matters, because it means Obama must eschew nuance if we he wants to get the job done. Setting aside the skepticism that many rightly hold toward the claim that a limited strike will not lead to full out war and destabilize the entire region, let us explore further why Obama’s current choice of alternating between two sales pitches is lose-lose.

A military intervention in Syria must be made for the sake of the Syrian people. It is understandable that the United States may want to intervene because of its geo-strategic interests but framing this intervention in any way but a way to rescue future Syrian civilians will lose the moral high ground and with it the Arab and Muslim public opinion. But geo-strategy plays better to those who fear any hint of the moralistic exceptionalism that played such a big part in leading the United States into Iraq. And those individuals make up the vast majority of the political representatives whom Obama must convince to back a strike.

In an attempt to bridge the gap between his two rationales, Obama is claiming that the United States must act because a ‘red line’ has been crossed. But this is little more than an attempt to shore up his own legitimacy and the United States’ global standing – it does not translate into protection of the Syrian people. Sweeping in to punish Assad for crossing the red line and then swiftly exiting will not save Syrians from Assad’s wrath. In Congress, the claim is being made that Assad is testing America’s resolve and that the United States must show that it means what it says. This too rings hollow to Arab publics who merely see a strongman trying to defend his ego, the rhetoric all too similar to that used by many who have ruled in the Arab world.

And so Obama’s rhetorical dilemma is clear: he needs to win support at home, but the more successful these geo-strategic arguments prove, the less sympathy his case for intervention generates abroad. Linking intervening in Syria to the nuclear file in Iran, stemming the rise of Iranian influence, or defending the interests of America’s ally Israel are all arguments that sideline or completely ignore the defense of Syrian lives.

While Congress may want to hear about how this intervention is a threat to America’s geo-strategic interests or its allies, Arabs are listening too, and they’ve heard it before and seen where it leads.

The Arab people have been caught in the crosshairs of Washington’s geo-strategic calculations far too many times. It is not just the memory of Iraq and the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives were lost. This is also about the Israeli attacks on Gaza in 2008 and Lebanon in 2006, and more. In all of these conflicts, the United States did not draw a red line at the lives lost. Many in the Arab world are now wondering why a death by sarin gas counts for more than one by a missile or bullet.

If this strike against Syria is really about preventing the further death of civilians, then Obama needs to stop with his pendulum sales pitch and stick to the moral argument for intervention. If the vote fails, it fails. This is better than clouding the debate with geo-strategic justifications that may lead to short-term action, but that will have long-term consequences that will haunt everyone, those in the United States and the Arab world, alike.

Unlike many Americans, Arabs and Muslims are fully prepared to understand U.S. actions as self-serving. They already tend toward perceiving the U.S. as only secondarily interested in protecting the Arab people. It may be too late to walk back the damage done so far in ‘selling intervention’ as geo-strategy, but if Obama doesn’t try, the costs of any strike will be damning.

Before you click away, we’d like to ask you for a favour … 


Journalism in Canada has suffered a devastating decline over the last two decades. Dozens of newspapers and outlets have shuttered. Remaining newsrooms are smaller. Nowhere is this erosion more acute than in the coverage of foreign policy and international news. It’s expensive, and Canadians, oceans away from most international upheavals, pay the outside world comparatively little attention.

At Open Canada, we believe this must change. If anything, the pandemic has taught us we can’t afford to ignore the changing world. What’s more, we believe, most Canadians don’t want to. Many of us, after all, come from somewhere else and have connections that reach around the world.

Our mission is to build a conversation that involves everyone — not just politicians, academics and policy makers. We need your help to do so. Your support helps us find stories and pay writers to tell them. It helps us grow that conversation. It helps us encourage more Canadians to play an active role in shaping our country’s place in the world.

Become a Supporter