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Just as she did when Obama's health care bill seemed to falter in 2010, Pelosi has been pushing the White House to amp up its public relations campaign. She has urged fellow Democrats to read the classified intelligence, which she considers conclusive. She has also made clear that she is willing to adjust the wording of any authorization to win votes, including possible restrictions on sending troops to the country and timetables for an end to the bombing. However, her flexibility has limits. "There are some, I think, that are saying it should determine the number of strikes," she says of the legislation. "That goes a little far."
But the bigger issue is selling the public on the conflict. "This has to be taken to the people," she says. "They have to be more aware, to know why a President who is winding down two wars, who knows the public is weary of war, would say I'm going to initiate a tailored, limited strike in Syria."
That's much harder to do, however, than to say. More than 100,000 people have already died in the Syrian conflict, with only a small fraction succumbing to chemical weapons. White House aides have said plainly that the U.S. mission in Syria is not to stop the slaughter or to end the civil war through military force. In the face of the horror, both Obama and Pelosi have tried to focus attention on the national-security interest of stopping chemical-weapons use. "If he shot them with bullets, what difference would it make?" asks Pelosi, referring to the residents of East Damascus who perished in the most recent chemical attack on Aug. 21. "Plenty. Because he used a chemical weapon, which is a threat."
When her 5-year-old grandson asked if the children Bashar Assad killed were in America, Pelosi had to offer a different argument. "I said, 'Well, no. But they're children, wherever they are.'" It was an emotional plea long used by members of both parties to defend U.S. involvement in distant conflicts. Her argument is not with the child; it is with members of her own party on a question that has no good answers. Pelosi declined to hazard a bet on how it all turns out. "Let's see," she says, "how it goes."
With reporting by Zeke J. Miller and Alex Rogers / Washington