Obama’s Syria Gamble

Posted September 4th, 2013 at 10:25 pm (UTC+0)

House Speaker John Boehner looks on warily as President Obama explains his Syria policy at the White House September 3. After the meeting Boehner said he would support the president. Photo: AP

Reaching Out to a Reluctant Congress

Fasten your seat belts.  This could be a bumpy ride.  President Barack Obama’s decision to seek congressional approval before any military action against Syria is the kind of high stakes gamble rarely seen in Washington.

Few would have been surprised had the president decided to go ahead with cruise missile strikes in Syria without waiting for a green light from Congress.  But by inviting lawmakers to weigh in now, Mr. Obama risks a possibly messy outcome where Congress could, conceivably, decline to provide him with the kind of political cover he wants.

That would leave it up to him to either go it alone or stand down from any military action.  All of that, of course, would have profound implications for U.S. credibility around the world among both friend and foe alike.

After a meeting with key congressional leaders at the White House on Tuesday, it looked like Congress was prepared to grudgingly go along with the president.  Republican House Speaker John Boehner emerged from the meeting between the president and congressional leaders and said military action in Syria is something the “United States, as a country, needs to do.”

But the next twist in the road came Wednesday when Senator John McCain, a leading hawk on Syria, said at first that he couldn’t support the latest Senate resolution authorizing the use of military force in Syria. McCain finally came around after language was added calling for “decisive changes to the present military balance of power on the ground in Syria.”

McCain advocates a wider U.S. role in support of rebels opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government and the White House needs the support of McCain and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham if it has any hope of getting the Senate and House of Representatives to approve military action.

The first step along that path came Wednesday afternoon when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the amended resolution. It now goes to the full Senate for consideration.

In the House of Representatives, joining Boehner in support of a military strike was Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi. In the old days before paralyzing partisanship infected Capitol Hill, the support of the two major party leaders in the House virtually assured passage of legislation.  But the old days are long gone and there are many more complicating factors at play in the “realpolitik” of modern day Washington.  And it remains to be seen how many Republicans Boehner can bring along in the end.  After all, the House Republican conference has been on the verge of revolt in the past over Boehner’s leadership and his ability to influence


Opposition Left and Right

Experts believe the president’s chances of winning support for a limited military strike in Syria are better in the Democratically-controlled Senate than in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.  Veteran Democratic senators like Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Dianne Feinstein of California have already come out in favor of a resolution authorizing the president to use force. More conservative voices like McCain and Graham will also need to be brought into the fold.

On the other side of the argument in the Senate is freshman Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.  Paul is a leading light of what is coming to be known as a non-interventionist wing of the Republican Party, more Libertarian in outlook and willing to question whether foreign military involvements are in the U.S. national interest.  Paul led the skeptics in questioning Secretary of State John Kerry during this week’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing and does not shy away from the limelight.

Two key members of the Senate who debated the president’s Syria policy were Rand Paul, left, and John McCain. Photo: AP

Paul is also a likely Republican presidential contender in 2016, and staking out a firm position in opposition to intervention in Syria could help him with Tea Party and other conservative groups looking for a champion three years from now.

Paul says he will also try to persuade members of the House to oppose the Syria effort.  The Republican-controlled House is more fractious than the Senate and the administration is most concerned that a loose coalition of anti-war Democrats and non-interventionist Republicans could join forces and deny President Obama the votes he needs to gain approval in that chamber.  So the White House strategy will be to limit their losses among liberals, especially those who felt burned by the Iraq War debate in 2002 that focused on weapons of mass destruction that never materialized.  This is where Nancy Pelosi’s support will be crucial.

On the other hand, Speaker Boehner could have his hands full trying to round up reluctant Republicans.  Many Republican House members say their constituents are showing little interest in yet another foreign military operation following long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  And a lot of Republicans in the House just don’t like President Obama and have little inclination to do anything to help him.

The challenge for Boehner is whether he can round up enough Republicans who can be grudgingly persuaded to help and cobble together enough Democrats to get a majority in the House that will support a limited engagement in Syria.  Those members in tough races next year may be reluctant to go against their constituents.

Many opinion polls show Americans oppose involvement in Syria.  The latest Washington Post-ABC News survey found 59 percent of those asked oppose the U.S. launching missile strikes in response to last month’s chemical weapons attack.


The 2016 Factor

This issue could play a role in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries.  In addition to Rand Paul, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie are all considered likely White House contenders three years from now.  Paul and Cruz are clearly in the skeptical camp right now with regard to using force in Syria, and Paul could wind up playing a pivotal role in opposition.  Rubio also has expressed skepticism, but appears to be leaving his options open.  Christie has said little so far, but you may remember that he engaged with Paul earlier this year on the use of drones and on the broader role of the U.S. abroad.  Christie represents a more traditional internationalist Republican Party outlook that traces back to Republican presidents like Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon and Dwight Eisenhower.  It’s possible that whatever happens on Syria could be a point of conflict among the field of Republican White House contenders in 2016.


Winning Over a War-Weary Public

Mr. Obama no doubt carefully watched what happened in Britain when Prime Minister David Cameron failed to win over Parliament in his bid to join the effort to punish the Syrian government for what the U.S. says was a chemical attack on Syrian civilians last month.

War fatigue is even higher in the United States, where Americans are anxious to finally be done with military engagements in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  Getting congressional approval before any military action could bolster the president’s political standing domestically and it could be read as a signal of U.S. determination by the world community.  Winning over public opinion seems a taller order right now.  Too many Americans are sick of war after more than a decade fighting on battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq.

As the debate over Syria continues in Washington, rallies are being held around the world, both for and against military intervention in Syria. This one was last Sunday in Tokyo.

Of course the flip side of that is that congressional disapproval and inaction by the Obama administration could undermine the president’s credibility, both at home and abroad.  That’s why you already see some senior Republicans like Mike Rogers of Michigan, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, arguing that the debate is really about the “credibility of the United States” in standing up to the use of chemical and biological weapons.

But even supporters of a congressional resolution to use force in Syria could be hard-pressed to answer what they hope to accomplish by military strikes targeting the Assad regime.

If the strikes are to be limited from the outset and not meant to shift the balance of power in Syria’s civil war, what’s the point?  Can you guarantee the United States won’t be drawn into a wider conflict in Syria?  Hasn’t the U.S. already lost international prestige by not acting swiftly?

There may not be clear answers to those questions.  But supporters of military action will no doubt pose questions of their own—what are the costs for the United States and its allies if the world remains silent in the wake of a chemical attack?  And if we do nothing, does that not encourage Assad, and perhaps others, to carry out such attacks, mindful that the international community may not be able to muster the communal will to hold them accountable?

The congressional debate in the coming days could have enormous consequences, not only on the president’s efforts to win domestic support for his policy toward Syria, but also on an international community eager to learn how far the U.S. is willing to go to counter adversaries after more than a decade of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

2 responses to “Obama’s Syria Gamble”

Jim Malone

Jim Malone

After a stint in the Peace Corps in Swaziland, Jim joined VOA in 1983 as a reporter and anchor on English broadcasts to Africa.  He served as East Africa correspondent, then covered Congress in the early 1990’s.   Since 1995, Jim has served as VOA national correspondent responsible for coverage of U.S. politics, elections, the Supreme Court and Justice Department.  Jim has been involved in VOA’s election coverage since the 1984 presidential campaign and has co-anchored live VOA broadcasts of numerous national political conventions, candidate debates and election night coverage.


September 2013
« Aug   Oct »