Hasan Rowhani
(Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)
June 16, 2013

Iran's New President A Relative Moderate

Calling it an era of wisdom and moderation, Iran's new president, Hasan Rowhani, vowed to integrate the country back into the international community and asked Western nations to adopt a more "respectful rhetoric" toward Iran.

His triumph Saturday with 18 million votes, slightly over half of the cast ballots, surprised many Iranians who had suspected that the leadership would repeat the controversial elections of 2009 that led to the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. By accepting Rowhani's victory, the regime may be taking a step to restore some of its lost legitimacy.

The massive rallies followed by a bloody crackdown in 2009, as well as international sanctions over Iran's nuclear program, have led to a political and economic crisis. Many blame Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for the debacle and believe that Rowhani, a veteran negotiator, can provide the opportunity for him to fix his image.


Rowhani , a midranking cleric, is not a reformist even by Iranian standards. He backed a violent crackdown against the pro-democracy student movement in 1999. A politician since the 1979 revolution, he has served as a member of Parliament and speaker of National Security Council. In the 1990s, he completed a doctorate at Scotland's Glasgow Caledonian University.

But during the campaign, he presented himself as a moderate, both on domestic and foreign policy, and appeared as the most charismatic and pragmatic of all the eight candidates — five of them ardent supporters of Khamenei. He appealed to the young electorate that is vying for more political and social openness, saying that even in 1999 he tried to block more violent measures.

Another candidate, the former Tehran police chief, Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf who came second with 15 percent of the votes, had boasted in his campaign that he personally led the crackdown in 1999 as well in 2003 and 2009. "I am not a general," said Rowhani sarcastically to Ghalibaf during a national television broadcast. "I have studied law."

On the nuclear issue, he dismissed Iran's uncompromising position during a televised debate and said: "Of course it's good for the centrifuges to spin, but people's daily lives should run, too." He was referring to Iran's uranium enrichment activities that the country has adamantly refused to halt. The technology can be used to make nuclear fuel as well nuclear bombs if uranium is enriched to high levels. U.S.-led sanctions are squeezing the economy. Oil revenue is down by half and inflation is at more than 30 percent.

Nuclear Issue

Rowhani's victory has bolstered optimism that he is capable of ending the nuclear standoff with the West. As the country's first nuclear envoy, he signed the additional protocol to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, allowing inspectors from the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency to visit Iran's nuclear facilities. Further, Iran suspended its sensitive uranium enrichment activities. Those measures built trust around Iran's nuclear program until Ahmadinejad reversed them in 2005.

Khamenei, who has the final word on state matters, has repeatedly dismissed compromise over Iran's nuclear program. But the president sets the tone for domestic and foreign policy and can create room for moderate politicians to persuade Khamenei to change course.

On Saturday afternoon, millions appeared on the streets in green, the color of the protest movement after the 2009 elections, and purple, Rowhani's campaign color. They chanted slogans, demanding the release of hundreds of political prisoners, including two opposition leaders, Mehdi Karroubi and Mir-Hussein Moussavi, the former presidential candidates.

Iranian media also hailed Rowhani's election. The daily Jomhuri Islamic, which was once close to Khamenei, wrote in an editorial on Sunday that the vote for Rowhani meant "yes to moderation and no to extremism."

"The solid vote for moderation showed that Iranian people are tired of any kind of extremism and no longer accepts those policies," the newspaper said.

Nazila Fathi was The New York Times correspondent in Iran until 2009. She is currently a fellow at Harvard University's Belfer Center

June 14, 2013

Syria Denounces US Chemical Weapons Claim

Syria has dismissed as "a caravan of lies" claims that it used chemical weapons, after the US said it would give the rebels "direct military aid".

President Barack Obama's decision came after the White House said it had clear evidence of government forces carrying out small-scale chemical attacks.

Rebel commander Gen Salim Idris told the BBC it was a "very important step".

But Syria's foreign ministry said the US had used "fabricated information" on chemical weapons to justify the move.

Washington was resorting to "cheap tactics" to justify Mr Obama's decision to arm the rebels, a statement from the ministry added.

On the ground, there were reports of the fiercest fighting in months in Aleppo. Earlier this week, Syrian media said President Bashar al-Assad's government was planning a major military offensive on the northern city.

Two years of conflict had killed at least 93,000 people, the UN said on Thursday, at a current rate of 5,000 people a month. More than 1,700 children under the age of 10 were among the dead.

'Moderate' forces

Mr Obama's Deputy National Security Adviser, Ben Rhodes, said the president had made the decision to increase assistance, including "military support", to the rebels' Supreme Military Council (SMC), which includes the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.

The US was "comfortable" working with Gen Idris, the head of the SMC, and aimed to isolate some of the more extremist elements of the opposition, such as Sunni militant group al-Nusra, he added.

Mr Rhodes did not give details about the military aid, other than to say it would be "different in scope and scale to what we have provided before".

Until now, the US has limited its help to rebel forces by providing rations and medical supplies.

Administration officials have been quoted by US media as saying it is most likely to include sending small arms and ammunition. The New York Times quoted officials as saying Washington could provide anti-tank weapons.

The CIA is expected to co-ordinate delivery of the military equipment and train the rebel soldiers in how to use it. It is already believed to have co-ordinated covert shipments of weapons to the rebels by US allies in the region, and helped decide which groups would receive the arms.

Republican Senator John McCain, who has been outspoken in calls for arming the rebels, said he did not know to which type of arms the term "military aid" referred, but that he hoped for anti-tank weapons.

He said his greatest concern was the conflict "spiralling out of control because of a failure of American leadership".

Republican Congressman Tom Rooney, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, told the BBC that he feared Washington was succumbing to dangerous "mission creep" over Syria.

"Are we going to war with Assad in a more affirmative way, or are we just helping who we believe the rebels are to the extent that we have no control whatsoever on the outcome?" he asked.

In a BBC interview on Friday, Gen Idris said new weapons would help the rebels defeat the Assad regime and defend civilians.

"We are in most need for anti-tank missiles and anti-aircraft missiles and in addition to all of that we need a huge amount of weapons and ammunition to stop the offensive of the regime," he added.

Prime Minister David Cameron said he shared the US view that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons, but that the UK had not yet decided whether to arm the rebels.

He told the BBC that engaging with "moderate" rebel groups - by working with them and providing training as well as technical assistance - helped limit the influence of more extremist fighters.

Mr Cameron later discussed the situation in Syria in an hour-long video conference with Mr Obama, French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta.

'Not convincing'

The US intelligence community believed Syrian government forces had used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition on several occasions in the past year, said Mr Rhodes, adding that he estimated as many as 150 people had died in the attacks.

Washington's "clear" statement was welcomed by Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who urged Syria to let the UN "investigate all reports of chemical weapons use".

The US announcement is one the Syrian opposition has been pushing and praying for for months, says the BBC's Jim Muir in Beirut.

It seems clear Mr Obama has finally been persuaded, as Britain and France have argued, that the battlefield cannot be allowed to tilt strongly in the regime's favour, as is currently happening, our correspondent adds.

Moscow said Washington's supposed evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria did "not look convincing".

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's spokesman told the BBC he remained against "any further militarisation" of the conflict in Syria, saying the people there needed peace, not more weapons.

The support of the West's regional allies, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, had helped the rebels in the days after the uprising became militarised.

But the tide turned after the Syrian government turned to Moscow and Tehran for help. Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon have also been involved in a recent government's counter-offensive that resulted in the recapture of the strategically important town of Qusair.

On Friday evening, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah promised the group would keep fighting in Syria "wherever needed".

Meanwhile, Turkey's state-run news agency reported that 73 Syrian military officers, including seven generals, had crossed into the country with their families "seeking refuge".

Violence in Syria
(Aleppo Media Center AMC, File/AP)
June 13, 2013

White House: Syria Forces Used Chemical Weapons

Syrian forces under President Bashar al-Assad have used chemical weapons "on a small scale" against rebel forces, the White House has said.

A senior aide to President Barack Obama said the US estimated 100-150 people had died in "multiple" attacks.

Ben Rhodes said the US had no "reliable" evidence the opposition had used chemical weapons.

The White House has previously made clear that the US considers the use of such weapons crossing a "red line".

Earlier, the United Nations said the number of those killed in the Syrian conflict had risen to more than 93,000 people.

Mr Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, said the president had made the decision to increase assistance, including providing unspecified "military support" to the opposition's Supreme Military Council (SMC).

He declined to provide further details, other than to say it would be "different in scope and scale to what we have provided before".

"The president has been clear that the use of chemical weapons - or the transfer of chemical weapons to terrorist groups - is a red line for the US," Mr Rhodes said.

"Our intelligence community now has a high confidence assessment that chemical weapons have been used on a small scale by the Assad regime in Syria. The president has said that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus, and it has."

Mr Rhodes said US intelligence agencies had concluded Mr Assad's forces had used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, based on battlefield reports, "descriptions of physiological symptoms" from alleged victims, and laboratory analysis of samples obtained from alleged victims.

However, the full number killed by chemical weapons was "likely incomplete", Mr Rhodes said in a conference call with reporters.

"Put simply, the Assad regime should know that its actions have led us to increase the scope and scale of assistance that we provide to the opposition," he said, including direct support to the SMC.

"These efforts will increase going forward."

Further actions will be taken "on our own timeline", Mr Rhodes said.

turkey protests
(Thanassis Stavrakis/AP)
June 11, 2013

Turkey Protests: PM Erdogan Issues Stern Warning

Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned that he will not show "any more tolerance" for protests.

He vowed to end the demonstrations after police firing tear gas cleared Istanbul's Taksim Square, the focal point of unrest for nearly two weeks.
Protesters stayed in the adjoining Gezi Park, returning to Taksim Square before police dispersed them a second time.

The unrest began after a crackdown on an environmental protest over Gezi Park's redevelopment.
The protests then widened, with demonstrators accusing Mr Erdogan's government of becoming increasingly authoritarian and trying to impose conservative Islamic values on a secular state.
'I send my love'

From early on Tuesday, police asked protesters to withdraw from Taksim Square through loudspeakers, before using water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets to clear them. Bulldozers were sent in to clear barricades and shelters.

They also removed protesters' banners from a building overlooking the square, replacing them with the national flag and a portrait of the father of the Turkish state, Kemal Ataturk - who has also been used as a symbol by demonstrators.

People hurled fireworks, fire bombs and stones at police - though some accused the police of planting undercover officers among the protesters.
The prime minister defended the police intervention on Tuesday, saying that an environmental movement had been hijacked by people who wanted to harm Turkey.

In a televised speech to members of parliament belonging to his Justice and Development Party (AKP) that was frequently interrupted by applause, he asked: "They say the prime minister is rough. So what was going to happen? Were we going to kneel down in front of these [people]?
"If you call this roughness, I'm sorry, but this Tayyip Erdogan won't change."

He also appeared to contradict Istanbul Governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu, who had earlier said the police had no intention of breaking up the protest in Gezi Park.

"To those who... are at Taksim and elsewhere taking part in the demonstrations with sincere feelings: I call on you to leave those places and to end these incidents and I send you my love.

"But for those who want to continue with the incidents I say: 'It's over.' As of now we have no tolerance for them.
"Not only will we end the actions, we will be at the necks of the provocateurs and terrorists and no-one will get away with it," he continued.

"I am sorry but Gezi Park is for taking promenades, not for occupation."
Skirmishes between police and protesters in Taksim Square continued on Wednesday afternoon, reaching the edge of the park.

"Not long ago we heard loud explosions and before that there was a rain of gas bombs falling on to civilians," one protester, Cem Ozen, told the BBC.

"We've seen many civilians being carried to makeshift medical points. Some people were wounded in the head."

The BBC's Mark Lowen, in the square, says this was a deliberate show of force that may jeopardise plans by Mr Erdogan to meet the protest organisers on Wednesday.

"Can you believe that? They attack Taksim, gas us in the morning just after proposing talks with us? What kind of leader is that?" said one 23-year-old protester in Gezi Park.
By the evening, however, demonstrators streamed back into the square, apparently unopposed, until police once more moved against them with tear gas and water cannon. More clashes followed as darkness fell, with several fires sending plumes of black smoke into the sky.

The protests, which began on 31 May, have been largely peaceful.
The Turkish Human Rights Foundation says four people have been killed, including one policeman. Some 5,000 protesters have been treated for injuries or the effects of tear gas, while officials say 600 police have also been injured.

Smaller protests have occurred in the capital, Ankara, too.

Police there have used water cannon and tear gas to break up demonstrations almost every night.

 Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
(Thanassis Stavrakis/AP)
June 06, 2013

Defiant Turkish PM Erdogan Urges End to Protests

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called for protests across the country to end immediately.

At Istanbul airport he told crowds of supporters who were welcoming him home from a four-day North Africa tour that the protests bordered on illegality.

But as he spoke, thousands of anti-government protesters were also rallying in Istanbul's Taksim Square.

The unrest began as a local protest over a park in Istanbul but spiralled into nationwide demonstrations.

'Common sense'

An estimated 10,000 supporters of Mr Erdogan's AKP party descended on the airport to welcome him home in the early hours of Friday.

Standing alongside his wife and government ministers on an open-top bus, he told the crowd: "I call for an immediate end to the demonstrations, which have lost their democratic credentials and turned into vandalism."

Some of his supporters chanted: "Let us go, let's crush Taksim."

However, Mr Erdogan urged them to "go home" peacefully.

"You have remained calm, mature and showed common sense," he said. "We're all going to go home from here."

It was the first major show support for Mr Erdogan following a week of protests in which his opponents have called for him to resign.

The BBC's Mark Lowen in Istanbul says the rapturous welcome that the prime minister received shows the level of support he still commands.

However, Mr Erdogan's words are likely to fan the flames of the protest, he adds.

The divisions in Turkey look set to deepen in the days ahead and could be very dangerous indeed, our correspondent says.

The original sit-in at Gezi Park last Friday spiralled into mass protests after police cracked down on activists defending the green space near Taksim Square from developers.

Ray LaHood and Sam LaHood
(AP Photo/Transportation Department)
June 04, 2013

LaHood's Son Sentenced to Jail by Egyptian Court

The son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood of Peoria has been sentenced to a five-year jail term by an Egyptian court.

Sam LaHood is one of 43 nonprofit workers sentenced for illegally using foreign funds to foment unrest in the country

Among the defendants, 27 received five-year jail terms. Another five received two years and 11 got one year.  At least 16 of them were Americans.

The case, which stems from the roughly 17 months of military rule that followed the ouster of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, has led to a period of tension in U.S.-Egyptian relations, with Washington warning that, unless resolved, the case could lead to the loss of American aid.

Egypt receives more than $1 billion in military aid and $250 million in economic aid from the United States.

The work and funding of nonprofit groups have consistently been a bone of contention between them and authorities trying to control them. Last week, the New York-based Human Rights Watch and 40 Egyptian rights groups said an Egyptian draft law regulating non-governmental organizations would restrict the funding and operation of independent groups.

The contentious bill, proposed by Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and currently under debate by the country's interim legislature, would allow the state to control nonprofits' activities as well as their domestic and international funding, HRW said. The current form of the bill is a serious regression from earlier versions, it added.

There was no comment immediately available from Washington on Tuesday's ruling.

Sam LaHood, whose father served as an Illinois congressman, also has a brother in the Illinois state Senate.

Turkish youths shout slogan " Tayyip, resign! " as they clash with security forces in Ankara, Turkey, Saturday, June 1, 2013.
(Burhan Ozbilici/AP)
June 01, 2013

Turkey Protests: PM Erdogan Defiant as Protests Rage

Turkey's PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to press ahead with plans to redevelopment a park in Istanbul which have sparked violent clashes.

Mr Erdogan said he would not yield to "wild extremists" but that police may have used "excessive" force.

Police have now withdrawn from Istanbul's Taksim Square, which has become the focus of the protests.

Correspondents say the local issue has spiralled into widespread anger over perceived "Islamisation" of Turkey.

Mr Erdogan has been in power since 2002 and some in Turkey have complained that his government is becoming increasingly authoritarian.

His ruling AK Party has its roots in political Islam, but he says he is committed to Turkey's state secularism.

Last week, Turkey's parliament approved legislation restricting the sale and consumption of alcoholic drinks between 22:00 and 06:00.

'Running wild'

The clashes over Gezi Park, next to Taksim Square, broke out Friday and continued there and in the capital, Ankara, on Saturday.

Opponents of the plan say the park is of the few green areas left in central Istanbul - many had been camping out there for several days in protest.

But in a defiant speech to the exporters' union, Mr Erdogan insisted the project would go ahead, and that the historic Ottoman era military barracks would be rebuilt on the site as planned.

Referring to the protesters' fears that the site will actually become a shopping mall, he said one "might be built on the ground floor or a city museum. We haven't given our final decision yet".

Mr Erdogan vowed order would be restored "to ensure the safety of people and their property" and that police would stay in place "because Taksim Square cannot be an area where extremists are running wild".

He said of the protests: "All attempts apart from the ballot box are not democratic", adding that he could summon a million pro-government protesters if he wanted to and accusing his opponents of using the issue as an excuse to create tension.

Despite the damage done to property, the police force "continues to operate with the authority it was given," said Mr Erdogan.

However, he did admit that the police response may have been "excessive", and that the interior ministry was investigating the "misuse of tear gas by our security forces".

Turkey's President Abdullah Gul has called on all sides to be "mature" in order for the protests which he said had reached "a worrisome level, to calm down."

In a statement, he called on the police to "act in proportion".

Resignation calls

The protest began at the start of the week as a sit-in in Gezi Park to block the redevelopment plans. But they escalated after police used tear gas to try to clear the protesters out.

On Friday, a dozen people were admitted to hospital and more than 60 people detained as police and protesters clashed.

Then on Saturday, hundreds of demonstrators marched over the bridge connecting the Asian and European shores of Istanbul to try to reach the Taksim Square.

Police again fired tear gas and water cannon to clear protesters, sparking accusations of excessive force.

Demonstrators, some of whom threw rocks, chanted "unite against fascism" and "government resign".

"About half past one the entire city started to reverberate. People were banging on pots, pans, blowing whistles," she said.

Another woman protesting in Istanbul told Agence France-Presse: "They want to turn this country into an Islamist state, they want to impose their vision all the while pretending to respect democracy."

Later on Saturday afternoon, there were cheers in the square as the police withdrew their vehicles and took down barricades, apparently allowing the protest to go ahead.

Clashes were also reported in the Besiktas district while in Ankara, hundreds of demonstrators gathered at a park, many drinking alcohol in protest at the new restrictions.

The BBC's Louise Greenwood in Istanbul says police from as far afield as Antalya are being drafted in to help quell the violence.

The US has expressed concern over Turkey's handling of the protests and Amnesty International condemned the police's tactics.

In his speech, Mr Erdogan criticised the "preaching" of foreign governments, saying they "should first look at their own countries".

One Istanbul resident, who gave her name as Lily, told the BBC's World Service that police had dropped tear-gas canisters from helicopters overnight.

John McCain
(Mohammad Hannon/AP)
May 27, 2013

US Senator John McCain Visits Syrian Rebels

U.S. Senator John McCain has visited Syria to meet rebels in the war-torn country, his office has told the BBC.

The 2008 Republican presidential candidate has repeatedly called for the US to provide military aid to members of the Syrian insurgency.

McCain spokesman Brian Rogers did not give details about the senator's visit.

News of the trip comes ahead of a planned meeting in Paris between US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov.

According to US media reports, Sen McCain, the top Republican on the Senate armed services committee, entered Syria through Turkey and was on the ground there for several hours.

The opposition leaders he met reportedly called for weapons to continue their fight, as well as a no-fly zone and air strikes on government targets.

Sen McCain becomes the highest ranking US official to travel to Syria, where an estimated 70,000 people have been killed since violence broke out in March 2011.

The US currently provides humanitarian aid to opposition groups in Syria.

In March 2012 he called for the US to conduct air strikes in Syria, saying it would protect civilians and help force Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power.

The hawkish senator had also supported US intervention in Libya in 2011, calling for the establishment of a no-fly zone there.

May 20, 2013

Obama to Host Burmese President

President Thein Sein is to meet Barack Obama in Washington, in the first state visit by a Burmese leader since 1966.

The US said the visit showed commitment to helping "governments that make the important decision to embrace reform".

The US has hailed recent changes in the formerly military-ruled state, including the release of dissidents and relaxed censorship.

However, activists have raised concerns over the sustainability of the reforms and religious violence in Burma.

Thein Sein's invitation to the White House demonstrates Mr Obama's determination to keep building relations with the current government, despite warnings from human rights groups that he is making concessions too quickly, the BBC's South East Asia correspondent Jonathan Head reports.

The US administration believes it needs to encourage the Burmese president to continue his reforms; it has suspended most but not all sanctions, our correspondent adds.

'More development'

Burma has launched a series of reforms since establishing a nominally civilian government in 2011, ending almost 50 years of military rule.

Thein Sein heads an administration that was elected in November 2010 in the country's first elections in two decades. The Aung San Suu Kyi-led opposition has a small presence in parliament after a landslide win in by-elections in April 2012 largely deemed free and fair.

Speaking at a forum at the office of US broadcaster Voice of America on Sunday, Thein Sein said US-Burma relations had "greatly improved thanks to the policies of President Obama".

"For our political reforms, we also need more economic development," he said.

He defended the allocation of 25% of seats in Burma's parliament to the military - something entrenched in the country's 2008 constitution.

"[The military] is a defensive force. You cannot deny their place in politics," he said.

International groups have also voiced concerns about serious religious violence in Burma in recent months.

At least 40 people were killed in anti-Muslim riots in central Burma last month, while widespread unrest in 2012 between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine state left nearly 200 people dead, and thousands of Rohingya Muslims displaced.

Democratic Congressman Joe Crowley said in a statement that he was "incredibly concerned about the facts on the ground in Burma, including human rights violations against ethnic nationalities".

Jennifer Quigley, from the US Campaign for Burma, said: "President Obama is sending the message that crimes against humanity by state forces against ethnic and religious minorities in Burma will be ignored by his administration."

Hundreds of political prisoners have been freed - more than 20 were pardoned prior to Thein Sein's trip. However, activists say that more remain behind bars, and have described the timing of the releases as "manipulative".

On Friday, Thein Sein's office director Zaw Htay denied that the government was using political prisoners as "tools".

President Barack Obama
(Alex Wong/Getty Images)
May 02, 2013

How Will Obama Make His Case on Syria?

The U.S. role in the civil war in Syria has been limited to humanitarian aid and nonlethal equipment for the rebels. But that may change with recent revelations about the use of chemical weapons.

Polls show that Americans are still not paying close attention to the conflict, but there is a reluctance to intervene — a byproduct of the experience in Iraq.

President Obama says he's weighing all options. Whatever he decides, he'll have to make a case to the U.S. public.

There are voices in Washington trying to ratchet up the pressure on the White House to do more about Syria. Most prominent are U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and John McCain, R-Ariz.

McCain said on NBC's Meet the Press this week: "We have said that they need a no-fly zone, which could be obtained without using U.S. manned aircraft. We could use ... Patriot batteries and cruise missiles to take out their air — and to supply the resistance with weapons."

But such calls are in the minority, and the White House is resisting them. Weeks ago, Obama warned Syria that the use of chemical weapons would cross a red line. Now that that line has apparently been crossed, the president's tone hasn't changed. He's signaling to the public that while new options may be on the table, deliberations are still underway.

"When I am making decisions about America's national security and the potential for taking additional action in response to chemical weapon use, I've got to make sure I've got the facts," he said Tuesday. "That's what the American people would expect."

Expectations aside, for now at least, Americans are not paying close attention to Syria, says Michael Dimock of Pew Research.

"Even with news recently about the possible use of chemical weapons, there's been no real surge of public interest in the situation," he says. "We're finding fewer than 1 in 5 telling us they're following it very closely, and that's been about the level of interest for the past two years now."

That low level of interest means it's somewhat of a blank slate in terms of defining how Americans look at the situation — creating an opportunity for the White House.

"There's a lot of research and literature over the decades that shows that the way in which a conflict is described has a big bearing on whether the public will support U.S. military intervention there," says Jeremy Rosner, who was on the National Security Council during the Clinton years.

Rosner offers an example: "If it's described mostly as an effort to contain violent behavior by a regime, that tends to draw much more support than for a venture which is meant to create internal change within the country."

That gets to the lessons of Iraq: a war weariness among the public, the difficulty of that mission, and its controversial beginnings and the claims of weapons of mass destruction that were never found.

Dimock says the American public gave President George W. Bush a lot of leeway on limited evidence after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"In the current environment, the public is a lot more cautious and not as eager to take bold actions on limited information," Dimock says.

Americans will want to know what exactly U.S. involvement would look like. If not boots on the ground — which seems extremely unlikely in Syria — then what the mission, goals and exit strategy are.

Duke University's Peter Feaver, who was on Bush's National Security Council during the Iraq War, says that rather than addressing those questions, he thinks Obama is preparing the public for little or no intervention.

That may suit the public now, "but there's another lesson from public opinion in American foreign policy, and that is the public punishes failure — regardless of whether they supported the policy initially," Feaver says.

While the president meets with national security, military and diplomatic advisers to decide what to do, know too that getting the American public on board is important and will get due consideration as well.


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