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October 22, 2014

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Obama gave Reid political whiplash on Syria

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J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev. pauses while speaking with reporters about President Barack Obama’s meeting with Democrats on the situation in Syria, Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

It’s not that easy, being Reid. At least not when the topic of the week is Syria.

As senate majority leader, part of Harry Reid’s unofficial job description is to work the Democratic president’s policies through the Congress.

But in the past few days, President Barack Obama’s official stance on striking Syria has changed with enough frequency to give Reid political whiplash on a very public stage.

“The president and his team really dumped a bad one on him this time,” said Jim Manley, Reid’s former communications director. “When the president asks him to do something he’s going to try to get it done … but he got caught in the whipsaw, the back-and-forth that went on last week.”

Reid was the first of the congressional leaders to make an official speech Monday, upon Congress’ return to Washington after a five-week home district work period.

Reid was blunt and passionate in calling on his colleagues to vote to approve “targeted military action that will hold President Assad accountable,” and announced the Senate would vote for that authorization this past Wednesday.

“Without question, this brutality demands a response,” Reid said. “Some may disagree with my conclusions…that is your right. But this is my firm conviction.”

But within a few hours, Russian officials announced that they had struck a deal with Syria, under which Syrian President Bashar Assad would turn over all of his chemical weapons. Obama had known the Russians were working the deal — but apparently, had kept it quiet.

And Reid was forced to backpedal fast. He took the planned Syria vote off the Senate’s calendar Monday night, and by Tuesday, Reid had edited his firm conviction to allow for giving peace a chance.

“If there is a realistic chance to secure Syria’s chemical weapons and prevent further atrocities by the Assad regime, we should not turn our backs on that chance,” Reid said Tuesday, with apparent reservation. “But for such a solution to be plausible the Assad regime must quickly prove that their offer is real…the Senate should give these international discussions time to play out, but not unlimited time.”

Reid has responded to the swiftly changing circumstances by doing what he has proven to be the best in the business at: Selling Obama’s policy line to the general Congress, even as that line changes.

“It would be odder if he said, ‘No, I think we should attack, I don’t care what the president says,’” said Eric Herzik, a political science professor at UNR. “It’s an evolving situation, and Reid is more than willing to evolve with it.”

But an aide admitted it’s been a whirlwind. And unlike other cases in which White House policy has evolved – as it did during recent debates about the fiscal cliff and gun control -- Reid’s traditional vote-rustling strategies didn’t present a workable solution in this fight.

“Throughout his tenure, time and time again, the president and his team, in my opinion, have taken a position of ‘We don’t have to worry about the senate, Harry will take care of it,’” Manley said. “On an issue like this there’s only so much a majority leader can do; it’s a vote of conscience.”

Conscience has played a paramount role in how Reid has approached, conceptualized, and explained America’s options in Syria to the general public.

Syrian Gas Attack: Contains graphic images

This citizen journalism image provided by the Local Committee of Arbeen which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows Syrian citizens mourning over the dead bodies of Syrian men after an alleged poisonous gas attack fired by regime forces, according to activists in Arbeen town, Damascus, Syria, Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013. Launch slideshow »

He keeps coming back to a 13-minute video from the night of the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in Syria that shows children gasping for air and dying as the result of the chemical gasses they had inhaled. Reid watched that video multiple times and showed it to the entire Democratic Senate caucus on Tuesday.

“What took place on Aug. 21 is a revulsion,” Reid told reporters on Tuesday, clearly affected by the images he’d seen. Just a day before, he’d warned lawmakers that “the coldest places in hell” were reserved for those who saw such atrocities take place, and did nothing to intervene.

While others have made their cases for or against Syria on the basis of American war fatigue, or concerns about regional instability in the Middle East, Reid’s analysis of Syria has hinged on those images, and the memory of other gas attacks – specifically from the First and Second World Wars.

It’s not the first time Reid has been so singularly moved by images of children suffering. The majority leader reacted similarly to the descriptions of the first graders and teachers left dead after a mass shooting at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Conn. Those images drove Reid to reverse his previous positions on gun control, and push for a national dialogue and a legislative solution.

In Syria, the pictures of dead kids have inspired him to push a military response he calls “justified and necessary,” but that others, including Nevada’s other senator, Dean Heller, believe would be construed as an act of war.

“America’s intention…is not to engage in an open-ended conflict or invasion,” Reid said Monday, pushing back against critics. “Nor is it the commander in chief’s intention to commit ground troops to this conflict or to effect regime change.”

But personally, Reid wouldn’t mind seeing just that happen.

“I want to be careful we don’t use words like ‘regime change’ and all this – I’m speaking only for me,” he said Tuesday. “Assad is a demon, a tyrant, and the sooner he goes, the better. So I’m all in favor of helping the rebels all we can.”

By the time Reid uttered those words, Obama had already requested Reid withdraw the Senate resolution to authorize military strikes, and had committed to give the Russian deal to transfer Syrian arms to international control a chance.

Reid would officially support those plans in the same press conference.

“If something can be done diplomatically, I’m totally satisfied with that,” Reid said. “I’m not a blood-and-thunder guy. I’m not for shock-and-awe…if things can be worked out with the international community to get these weapons out of the hands of this madman, then I think that’s what we should do.”

But he didn’t exactly project full faith that a diplomatic solution will hold.

“What we have going on now with the international community is a positive development, but it’s only just that, it’s a development,” Reid said Tuesday. “It’s really important to remember that Syria has an extremely, extremely low level of credibility – he has denied even having these poisonous gases, these chemical weapons.”

Syria did admit for the first time on Tuesday that it possessed chemical weapons, as its government formally agreed to the Russian-brokered transfer proposal and signed onto the international Chemical Weapons Convention banning them.

Reid, however, does not seem satisfied.

“Reid looks at the individuals involved in this and certainly has no affinity for them in any way,” Herzik said. “There’s no trust; in terms of Assad there’s just outright contempt.”

Assad is not the first world dictator about whom Reid has expressed personal disdain that could potentially complicate U.S. foreign policy. His 2011 comment that Chinese president Hu Jintao was a “dictator” caused a national stir. It was eventually chalked up as a “Reidism” -- an unofficial term that describes the common occurrence of the majority leader quipping off script, without necessarily thinking the weight of his words through.

“He’s got a nasty little habit of speaking what’s on his mind,” Manley said. “And sometimes, when it’s directed toward dictators, it doesn’t sound very diplomatic.”

There is one notable exception: Reid has turned very little Syria-related vitriol toward Russia or its president Vladimir Putin, whom Reid said he “trusts.” He did take a jab likening Putin’s Thursday New York Times op-ed to his stealing of New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft’s Super Bowl ring, but has repeated the hope that Russia will use the Syria crisis as an opportunity for “constructive engagement,” and deemed the state of U.S.-Russian relations “okay.”

So stand Reid’s personal convictions. But should the administration be able to work out a deal that avoids the need for military engagement, there is little doubt that he will be the first in line to celebrate it to the general public.

“I can hear the skepticism in his voice, but for right now, he’s put the Senate on other issues, while giving the administration some time to see if they can work it out,” Manley said. “At the end of the day, he inevitably does what the president wants him to do.”

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