If President Obama believes he can turn around public opinion on U.S. intervention in Syria with a single speech, or even a few days of intensive public relations campaigning, he is badly mistaken.
Without some huge, earth-shattering event that changes things overnight -- a Sept. 11 or a Pearl Harbor -- changing public opinion is a slow process. To do it, a leader must make a case over and over and over and over -- something Obama has notably failed to do with Syria. So his speech Tuesday night won't change much.
Look at the Iraq war, the troubled example some Democrats cite as a basis for opposing U.S. intervention in Syria. "The Iraq thing is why people have so much trepidation about going into Syria," James Carville explained on Fox News.
Whether that's true or not, there's no doubt George W. Bush made a deep and detailed case to the American people for war in Iraq. And a look back shows he took a long time to do it.
Bush always wanted to depose Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. In a memoir, former speechwriter David Frum recalled that in Bush's first meeting with his speech team, in early 2001, the new president showed "his determination to dig Saddam Hussein out of power in Iraq."
In his first State of the Union address, in January 2002, after the Sept. 11 attacks focused his presidency on global terrorism, Bush included Iraq in the "axis of evil," accusing Saddam of pursuing weapons of mass destruction. "I will not stand by as peril draws closer and closer," Bush said. "The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons."
In the months that followed, the U.S. pursued resolutions against Iraq in the United Nations. And in June 2002, Bush unveiled the doctrine of pre-emption in a widely-covered graduation speech at West Point.
Through the summer of 2002, Bush and his aides continued to make the case that the U.S. should meet the threat they said was posed by Iraq. On Sept. 12, Bush addressed the United Nations, calling for another resolution against Iraq. Bush challenged the UN to enforce its own resolutions and vowed that the United States would act if the UN didn't.
Bush and his aides kept making the case, and a short time later in September proposed bills on Capitol Hill to authorize the use of U.S. military force in Iraq. The resolutions were formally introduced on Oct. 2, 2002, and voted on eight days later. The vote in the House was 296 to 133, while the vote in the Senate was 77 to 23. Bush won approval to go to war.
But he didn't go to war, at least not then. Through October, November, and December 2002, the Bush administration worked with the United Nations. At the end of the year, the president began moving U.S. forces to the Middle East.
In his January 2003 State of the Union address, Bush again vowed the U.S. would act in Iraq if the UN did not. In early February, the president dispatched Secretary of State Colin Powell to the United Nations; in perhaps the most widely-watched moment of the whole process, Powell laid out the case that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
Bush continued intensive efforts in the UN for six weeks after Powell's appearance. None succeeded, and in a March 19, 2003, speech to the nation -- 14 months after the "axis of evil" speech -- Bush announced that the invasion of Iraq had begun. Opinion polls showed the public supported the move by a 60-plus percent margin.
Some Democrats will respond: But Bush was wrong! He went to war on false pretenses! It was a disaster!
Put aside those arguments for a moment. The lesson for President Obama is that Bush knew committing the country to military action was a very big deal requiring much preparation. By working for so long to make his case, he made clear to the public that he was serious. Has Barack Obama put anywhere near the effort into making the case for action in Syria that George W. Bush did for Iraq?
Yes, the proposed Syria operation is far smaller than the Iraq invasion, but the principle is the same. A leader has to take the time and trouble to convince the public that military action is necessary. It can't be done in a day, or two days, or a week. The president's mini-campaign for intervention in Syria is bound to fail.