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The Multifaceted President

As Violence in Syria Escalates, White House Narrative of Obama as Peacemaker, Risk Taker Is Tricky Sell

It’s a tale of two presidents — the ice-cold killer who orders drone attacks against a secret “kill list” of targets as young as 17, and the peacemaker winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and resisting calls to start new ones.

The White House has worked hard in recent weeks to show both sides of President Barack Obama as it tries to sell his work to end the wars of the past decade while ramping up efforts to take on terrorists. The narrative aims to boost Obama’s foreign policy credentials and serves to counter Republican criticism that Obama is weak on Syria and Iran.

First with a media blitz surrounding the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden, and again Tuesday with a story in the New York Times about the president’s “kill list” of terrorists, the White House has pushed a narrative of the president as a commander in chief willing to take risks to protect Americans from terror attacks.

The article came just as the White House was taking more flak from Republicans, including presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, for what they characterize as Obama’s dovish approach on the ongoing violence in Syria.

But the president continues to reject calls to arm rebels or take military action, despite a massacre in Houla, Syria, over the weekend that left scores of women and children dead.

“Military action is always an option,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday. “You never, and we haven’t in this case, removed options from the table.”

But Obama clearly doesn’t want to use them.

“We do not believe that militarization, further militarization of the situation in Syria at this point is the right course of action. We believe that it would lead to greater chaos, greater carnage,” Carney said.

A minor victory came this weekend when, for the first time since the Syrian regime began targeting civilians, Russia and China joined the rest of the U.N. Security Council in condemning the massacre.

The United States and allies expelled Syrian diplomats in response to the massacre, and the administration is still in talks with the Security Council, including Russia, a Syrian ally that could be crucial to helping end the conflict. The White House supports the peace efforts of U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan but has no trust that Syria’s government will abide by any plan.

Romney welcomed the expulsion of the diplomats Tuesday but said more assertive measures are needed to end Bashar al-Assad’s reign.

“President Obama’s lack of leadership has resulted in a policy of paralysis that has watched Assad slaughter 10,000 individuals,” Romney said in a statement calling on the administration to pressure Russia and arm the rebels.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — who  along with Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has led a push for a more aggressive posture — said Sunday the savagery isn’t surprising. “They will do anything, kill anyone and stop at nothing to hold onto power. And what is the response of the United States and the rest of the international community to this latest mass atrocity in Syria? More empty words of scorn and condemnation.”

The conflict is drawing more scrutiny from Congress, with several Members, including McCain, Lieberman and, this week, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) visiting refugee camps on the Turkish-Syrian border.

“Military intervention is inevitable” if diplomatic efforts to get Assad to step down fail, said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) on a trip to the region. “But I think that would require a lot of planning and discussion among the parties. A group of interested Gulf countries are already beginning to talk about that possibility, and it is very likely that the United States will be involved in that discussion.”

Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) said there are worries about arming the opposition, with some wondering whether it might include members of al-Qaida or other fundamentalists. Udall said ultimately the Syria situation comes down to Russia.

“As long as the Russians continue to support the al-Assad regime, I don’t see any fundamental change in any leadership of the country,” he said.

But Udall said there is a concern whether the White House and Congress are being too timid.

“Are we going to ask ourselves six months or a year from now were we too cautious, did we allow another set of circumstances [like those] that arose in the Balkans, or in Rwanda?” Udall wondered. “I ask myself that question every day. I know the president and the administration ask themselves that every day.”

Unless the Security Council acts more assertively, it’s not clear what steps Obama might be willing to take beyond cheerleading for peace. It’s clear the administration has no interest in getting dragged into another war in the Middle East, particularly in an election year and especially in a country as geopolitically tricky as Syria, which counts Russia and Iran as major allies.

Indeed, the administration still hopes talks with Iran on its nuclear weapons program amid tightening sanctions will avert another potentially more dangerous military showdown.

The White House seems far more comfortable talking about its war on terror and swatting away questions about whether the president’s “kill list” complies with the Constitution.

“President Obama made clear from the start to his advisers and to the world that we were going to take whatever steps are necessary to protect the American people from harm, and particularly from a terrorist attack,” Carney said Tuesday. “At the same time, the president also made clear from the outset of his administration that we were at all times going to act in a manner that was both lawful and consistent with our values. And he has done that in both cases.”

Meredith Shiner and Humberto Sanchez contributed to this report.

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