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Former White House Official: It 'Would Be Devastating' If Obama 'Fails To Act' In Syria

John Whitesides, Reuters
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The White House

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Most Americans want no part of a U.S. military intervention in Syria, but there is a growing sense in Washington that President Barack Obama would face more political risks from a weak response to Syria's use of chemical weapons than from an attack on Bashar al-Assad's government.

As  Obama 's administration builds a case  for  a likely  military   action   in   Syria , several analysts said such a move probably  would  not have lingering negative consequences  for  the president at home - as long as the intervention was short-lived.

By declaring last year that Assad  would  cross a "red line" that could trigger a U.S. response if he used chemical weapons,  Obama  ensured that foreign foes and allies - as well as his Republican political rivals -  would  view any failure to respond as a sign of presidential weakness.

" Obama  has to consider the implications  for  other policy areas if he fails to act," said William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who was a domestic policy adviser to President Bill Clinton. "Doing nothing - that is what  would  be devastating."

After the chemical attack near Damascus last week that killed hundreds of Syrian adults and children and injured many more,  Obama  "doesn't have that luxury," of inaction, he said.

Obama , who has long been wary of any involvement  in   Syria 's civil war, and U.S. allies appeared on Tuesday to be carefully laying the groundwork  for  a coordinated  military  response.


Polls show large majorities of Americans, weary of more than a decade of wars  in  Iraq and Afghanistan, strongly oppose a U.S.  military  mission  in   Syria . A Reuters-Ipsos poll last week found about 60 percent of Americans are against U.S. intervention  in   Syria , while just 9 percent support it.

More Americans favor intervention if  Syria  has used chemical weapons, but even that support has dipped as the situation  in   Syria  has deteriorated, according to the poll.

However, U.S.  military   action  typically sparks a surge of at least short-term support  for  their president's actions, as Americans rally around the troops.

"My prediction  would  be that public opinion  would  swing very quickly to support the  military   action   in   Syria ," said Ipsos pollster Julia Clark. "The danger  for   Obama  is if it becomes more prolonged."

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers have been sending mixed signals on  Syria , arguably giving  Obama  more room to maneuver.

Republicans, led by Senator John McCain of Arizona, have criticized  Obama   for  moving too slowly and called  for a strong  military  intervention.

McCain suggested on Tuesday that a  brief  attack by cruise missiles, aimed more at sending a message to Assad than altering the course of  Syria 's civil war, could make the situation worse by allowing an emboldened Assad to claim that he had withstood an assault by the Americans.

Meanwhile, some liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans - including Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, a potential 2016 presidential candidate - have opposed any U.S. intervention.


Obama  faces the decision on  Syria  just as Congress prepares to return to Washington next week to renew a lingering budget fight over government spending and the federal debt  limit .

Some Republicans are threatening another government shutdown if Democrats don't agree to deeper spending cuts, or to delay funding  for  the president's healthcare overhaul.

The intense focus  in  Congress on domestic policy issues means the impact of any short-term  military   action   in Syria  could be limited.

"It's one of those things that, however tragic, won't have any lasting political impact one way or the other," Republican strategist Rich Galen said of a short-term U.S. intervention  in   Syria .

"We are locked  in  a cycle of domestic turmoil, and politically that will overwhelm everything else."

(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by David Lindsey and Peter Henderson; desking by Christopher Wilson)

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