Last week, TIME's foreign policy columnist Fareed Zakaria lamented that the Obama administration's handling of Syria has been "a case study in how not to do foreign policy." But it's not just the policy (or lack thereof) that has been flawed since the beginning, victim to the internal divisions inherent to the administration itself. Indeed in many ways, what we're seeing now is also a case study for how not to communicate foreign policy.
To be fair, the Obama administration has been in between a rock and a hard place since the beginning. With no perfect solutions and a complex situation on the ground, the administration constructed a flexible narrative unrestrained by lofty promises and reflective of a weariness for intervention that was shared too by the public. In a world of twitter and social media, they embraced such flexibility recognizing that even if their policy was yet unformed, their communication could not be.
But then in remarks that caught many of even his closest advisors by surprise last year, the President asserted that the use of chemical weapons would present for him a red line. How much Obama knew at the time and how much he intended to make these remarks or too, at the very least, awaken the country's conscience to the possibility of a chemical attack is unknown. What is sure however is that in so doing, the President punctured a hole in the flexible narrative his administration had worked so hard to create.
What's more, he effectively reduced a discussion about the many moving parts of Syria--the refugees without homes, the sectarian tensions, the many different faces of the opposition--to one simple but incomplete one: Were chemical weapons used? The answer may now be known but the question should never have been the only one.
At the end of the day, the "red line" is a foreign policy crisis of the President's own construction. Many pundits have remarked recently that to not obey it would be to see the evisceration of Obama's credibility. But the truth is his credibility was on the line ever since the day he drew that red line.
What remains now for the President is an uphill communication challenge that he and his team cannot afford to divorce from their policy moving forward.
Recent polling has shown Americans far more privy to an intervention to uphold the chemical ban than to topple Assad and the Syrian government itself. It's from this polling that the administration has chosen to frame their proposed military intervention as a sort of referendum on the illegal use of chemical weapons.
But this framing itself is not enough. Obama must work to connect the dots between Americans' perceived humanitarian sentiments and our national interest in enforcing this referendum.
What's more, the challenge for this constitutional law professor turned president will be not to reframe the conversation but to educate the public. The reality is many Americans do not understand the history or nature of this chemical weapons ban and it's sporadic enforcement. And while we are against chemical weapons in theory, we are still unsure as to how military intervention will actually work to impede their further deployment.
These questions and more are the ones the President must answer in his speech this Tuesday. The speech itself may very well be his only chance to chart out his administration's strategy, our country's stake in all of this, and the long term vision he has for our role in Syria and inevitably the region at large. He will have to bring to the fore his rhetorical power to not just persuade but to involve, to make it clear why the tragedy in Syria is too shared by Americans and why action now merits not just the projection of American power but too her capacity for moral leadership. Whether the President is able to do so remains to be seen.