Gwen’s Take: slippery slopes and other risky things

BY Gwen Ifill  September 13, 2013 at 10:32 AM EDT

It’s tough enough to govern effectively when the ground underfoot is stable. But take a tricky issue and angle it uphill, and getting things done gets a lot more complicated.

Last week I wrote about the strange bedfellows who are making it difficult for President Obama to win support for his campaign to intervene in Syria. Liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans — propelled by the American public’s documented war fatigue — banded together to force the White House to pursue a nonmilitary option.

On Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry must now persuade skeptics who both support and oppose military intervention that Russia can be a trustworthy diplomatic go between.

This almost immediately became a rocky premise. Even before Kerry landed in Geneva for a closely-watched meeting with his counterpart Sergey Lavrov, Russian President Vladimir Putin had dropped a political bomb on the pages of the New York Times.

“No one doubts poison gas was used in Syria,” Putin wrote. “But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists.”

The near universal response among American lawmakers was of disdain. House Speaker John Boehner said he was “insulted” by the argument. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Putin was only trying to show off his Super Bowl ring.

Russia, of course, is a powerful foreign patron of Bashar al-Assad. And one of the President’s most consistent arguments for intervention is that failing to act would empower the very fundamentalists Putin alludes to.

No wonder, then, that the U.S. government is paralyzed over Syria. Russia insists on United Nations involvement, but has pledged to veto anything that might result in military force. France, a U.S. ally, has said it won’t accept anything that precludes force. And a host of other nations have signed a document saying the international community should do something — just not what.

Enter President Obama — advised by lawmakers and political advisers that he should make his case to the American people, using the unfiltered venue of a prime time address to make dueling arguments for force and diplomacy.

“Many of you have asked, won’t this put us on a slippery slope to another war?” the President said. “One man wrote to me that we are ‘still recovering from our involvement in Iraq.’ A veteran put it more bluntly: ’This nation is sick and tired of war.”’

The President’s answer: this would be a different kind of war — focused on warning Assad about the misuse of chemical weapons than on removing him from power. (Some who otherwise support the President on this point disagree on the strategic goal. Sen. John McCain, for example, believes the U.S. should intervene to help drive Assad from power.)

Things remain slippery. Lawmakers, who were so relieved that any war vote would now be delayed as Kerry pursues the diplomatic track, immediately turned back to their own wars. Defunding Obamacare. Avoiding a government shutdown. Debating the debt limit.

Or, as the President said at the beginning of a cabinet meeting Thursday: “Even as we have been spending a lot of time on the Syria issue and making sure that international attention is focused on the horrible tragedy that occurred there, it is still important to recognize that we’ve got a lot more stuff to do here in this government.”

But whether the discussion is about war elsewhere or about the price of peace at home, it’s hard to see how anything gets less slippery anytime soon.