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U.S. President Barack Obama, left, talks to PBS NewsHour's Gwen Ifill Monday, saying he favours diplomacy rather than a military strike against Syria. At right, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad responds to a question from U.S. journalist Charlie Rose in an interview broadcast Monday.
U.S. President Barack Obama, left, talks to PBS NewsHour's Gwen Ifill Monday, saying he favours diplomacy rather than a military strike against Syria. At right, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad responds to a question from U.S. journalist Charlie Rose in an interview broadcast Monday.

Assad, Obama turn prime-time TV into a new battleground Add to ...

Were Marshall McLuhan advising Bashar al-Assad, he would have told him the same thing the Syrian President’s counsellors did: Go on television and take your case directly to the American people. And that’s exactly what the man accused of using chemical weapons on his own people did, courtesy of Charlie Rose, the popular 71-year-old interviewer of the U.S. Public Broadcasting Service.

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Mr. Rose’s scoop, broadcast Monday night on PBS and the commercial station CBS, is Mr. al-Assad’s good fortune and President Barack Obama’s headache, as it just may keep the U.S. leader from persuading members of Congress to support his planned air strike on Syria as punishment for allegedly killing hundreds of Syrian men, women and children – Mr. Obama says more than 1,400 people died – with sarin gas Aug. 21.

Television, as the communications theorist Mr. McLuhan famously wrote, is a cool medium, one that demands a lot of concentration from its viewers as it beams messages into their living rooms. Those who come across best on TV are those who are naturally interesting and whose message is easy to grasp. Those with an argument that makes viewers pay close attention, despite kids in the next room hollering for help with their homework, a dog that needs walking and all the other distractions of home life.

Think of Ronald Reagan’s easy-going manner when attacked by then-president Jimmy Carter in their 1980 debates. Think of John F. Kennedy’s relaxed approach with argumentative Richard Nixon in 1960. People who heard them on radio, a hot medium according to Mr. McLuhan, scored the debate as a win for Mr. Nixon; TV viewers preferred Mr. Kennedy.

On television, it is Mr. Obama whose task is the hard one. He must persuade a skeptical Senate and an even more skeptical House of Representatives that a limited military attack on the Syrian regime in response to the use of chemical weapons is the right thing to do. People have to listen carefully to his arguments and draw a conclusion. They then have to put pressure on their elected representatives to vote the way the people have decided.

All Mr. al-Assad must do is come across as he did Monday night: soft-spoken, mild-mannered, confident, and assertive without being aggressive. Even his lisp helps him as it stirs natural sympathies.

The Syrian leader had the chance to say he’s doing just what Americans do: fighting terrorism, since his line is that the rebels are “terrorists;” to claim it was the opposition that used chemical weapons; and to assert that his forces are disciplined and (despite the brutal civil war that has claimed some 100,000 Syrian lives) law-abiding.

Mr. Obama took his case to the people in interviews on six networks Monday – CNN, PBS, ABC, CBS, NBC and the usually hostile Fox News. He plans an address to the nation Tuesday. But that media blitz will not necessarily make it easier for him to paint Mr. al-Assad as a monster.

A long list of Middle East leaders, portrayed as villains by U.S. officials, have come across as surprisingly human and even humane when they have appeared on television. Then-Iranian president Abolhassan Banisadr and his foreign minister, Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, impressed millions of viewers of ABC’s 1979 America Held Hostage program with their intelligence, good English and seeming moderation, even as young Iranian revolutionaries held diplomats at the U.S. embassy in Tehran hostage for 444 days.

Former Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz, appearing frequently on CNN, gave a similar sheen to Saddam Hussein’s image during the 1990-91 Gulf War. Before Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was interviewed on the CBS Evening News by Walter Cronkite in 1977, he was seen largely as a diabolical military dictator. Thanks to Mr. Cronkite’s interview, the Egyptian leader was invited to Jerusalem and appeared before the Israeli Knesset just six days after the interview.

The U.S. and Syrian presidents aren’t the only interested parties taking their cases to the American people. Syrians who want a U.S. strike and those who don’t have sent impassioned video recordings urging their points of view on U.S. congressmen and media. It’s hardly a new phenomenon. This has been a tool used especially by rebel supporters almost since Day 1 of the Syrian civil war. The trouble is, they all tend to show the same thing: a puff of smoke, a call of Allahu akbar, or God is great, and some bodies here and there. After a while, people’s eyes glaze over.

The White House showed videos last week to Congressional leaders of people convulsing, foaming at the mouth, children breathing their last – all as a result of chemical agents. Many of the images have been widely circulated since the Aug. 21 attack. They are horrible to look at – which, Mr. McLuhan would say, may make them less effective as tools of persuasion.

Most Americans have had no personal stake in Syria’s civil war, but are being asked to pressure their representatives to approve the use of military force. Polls confirm that most are leery of wading into another conflict after long engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. All the assurances from Mr. Obama that he is proposing a single strike, not the start of a war, may not easily change their minds.

Mr. al-Assad played nicely to that hesitation, denying outright that he had ordered a chemical attack last month and dismissing the Obama administration’s argument that U.S. intelligence reports substantiate its claim that government forces carried out the attack.

Mr. al-Assad did not admit to Syria having chemical weapons – although its stockpiles are said by many international arms experts to be the largest in the region – but he acknowledged his country’s refusal to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention. Until Israel agrees to rid itself of nuclear weapons, he said, Syria will keep open the option of having other weapons of mass destruction.

Though “technically different,” he said, the two kinds of weapons are “morally the same.”

“At the end, killing is killing,” Mr. al-Assad said with a thin little smile.

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