Since 2001 Americans have experienced two wars, including the longest in the nation's history. The public is weary of conflict and wary of another engagement in the Middle East, as are countries in the region and our allies. President Obama's move to participate in another conflict there by providing military support for Syrian rebels after a determination that the regime of Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons during the yearlong civil war presents a difficult communications challenge.
Convincing the American public that this is the right thing to do will not be easy, yet that is only part of the challenge. Other audiences around the world including allies, neighboring countries and Assad himself must be considered. And it must always be remembered that the communications strategy should support, not limit, the ability to fulfill the strategic results the action seeks to achieve. President Obama must make sure that his political communications strategy is executed flawlessly in order to convince a skeptical public that supplying weapons to anti-Assad rebels is worth the risk and to sustain that support through the duration of America's engagement.
The president and his team would be wise to keep these points in mind as they formulate their plan:
• Make the case: With polls showing that the public is opposed to U.S. military involvement in Syria, the White House should make the case for why the action is being taken. To sustain public support, the president must be willing to respond to criticism as action commences and to keep making the case over and over again. Not doing so will be detrimental to both strategic and communication efforts.
• Be as explicit as possible: Be as clear as possible on the goals the United States wants to achieve. Recognizing that best laid plans never survive when confronted by reality and that successful military engagements often require flexibility, be as clear as possible about the criteria for determining what America will and will not do to support the rebels. Leaving parts of a plan to supply weapons to loosely connected militia groups in the Middle East to the American public's imagination will not help build support. It is all too easy for people to imagine a worst-case scenario. So the plan should set out clear benchmarks, and explain how each step builds upon the previous move to bring about the end goal of a stable, inclusive Syria without President Bashar al-Assad. Such statements should include if and under what conditions, the president would consider putting American boots on the ground.
• Acknowledge previous shortcomings: Those who do not learn from mistakes are bound to repeat them. A successful plan will outline how to avoid previous missteps and prevent harmful unintended consequences. Defining what lessons have been learned from the prior wars would be constructive and lend credibility to the effort.
• Assuage terrorism fears: As a result of the disorganized nature of the force opposing Assad, some rebel groups have pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda to gain military and financial support. Any strategy must be able to show the public exactly how American military might is staying out of the hands of terrorists. It must also make clear that extremist elements will have no place in a post-Assad Syria. This is a case where the enemy of my enemy is not my friend.
• Promise cooperation: Resolving the civil war in Syria has the potential to bring more stability to the region. The possibility of a win-win outcome should be a key selling point for Obama as he tries to gather more allies for the cause. The administration should be clear on the level of international authorization and participation sought and the actions taken to obtain such support.
• Get Republican support: At home, several Republican senators have called on the administration to step up its support for the Syrian rebels for months and applauded Obama's change of course. Perhaps this is a moment for the president to show some humility and say that folks like John McCain and Lindsey Graham were right about what needs to be done with Assad. Doing so could help bolster bipartisan support for the effort.
• Outline the exit strategy: The endgame in Syria will be even more important than any initial steps. Setting realistic expectations for how long America can expect to be involved without setting hard dates for Assad supporters to leverage and defining America's options for withdrawing from any conflict will pay dividends. Unrealistic expectations will diminish future support, and attempting to achieve the mission without sufficient resources will hinder the likelihood of success and invite harsh judgment by history (supporting the charge from critics that the administration watched and waited while 90,000 people died).
Finally, make sure everyone that speaks for the White House knows the plan and is consistent in their public statements. Sending military weaponry into a failed state to assist unproven military groups is already difficult and risky enough. Mixed signals and communication mistakes should not make it harder. A well-executed communications effort could increase the likelihood that this deadly conflict is brought to a much-needed resolution.
Hon. Mark R. Kennedy leads George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management and is Chairman of the Economic Club of Minnesota. He previously served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and was Senior Vice President and Treasurer of Federated Department Stores (now Macy's).