Obama’s Syria Quandary

Posted September 13th, 2013 at 9:37 pm (UTC+0)
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Is Vladimir Putin Washington’s new best friend? Photo: AP

The Political Stakes of an Uncertain Outcome

So how did we get to the point where Russian President Vladimir Putin conceivably saved President Obama from a very embarrassing defeat in the U.S. Congress over the use of force in Syria?

Well first off, we aren’t there yet.  And secondly, you get the feeling that this whole ‘wing and a prayer’ approach to the horrific mess in Syria could unravel at any time, adding another layer of international chaos on top of a brutal civil war that has already claimed more than 100,000 lives.

What transpired this week was the equivalent of a giant time-out, and virtually everyone with a stake in the outcome of the conflict seemed to welcome it.  The fact that it began to play out just hours before President Obama addressed the nation elevated the scene to high political drama.

The president’s surprising decision to try getting congressional approval for military strikes to degrade Syria’s chemical weapons capability put him in a political bind largely of his own making.  Mr. Obama faced stiff opposition not only in Congress but among the American people.  Public opinion polls showed that opposition to U.S. military strikes in Syria had actually increased during the president’s public relations offensive to the point where several surveys showed that 60 percent or more of Americans opposed the U.S. getting involved.  In short, the president was looking at a very heavy lift in trying to sway public opinion.  He’s a fine orator and all, but that truly seems a bridge too far.


Now What?

Seizing on the Russian proposal to have Syria give up its chemical stockpile offered the Obama administration a detour, at least in the short term.  A loss in Congress could have undermined the president on many levels, and second term presidents often don’t need much of a push to become politically irrelevant far sooner than they realize.  Had the president lost his bid in either the House or Senate or both to get approval for strikes, you can bet the Republicans would be smelling blood in the water.  They’ve kept their teeth shiny and sharp feasting on Obamacare for the past few years.  A congressional defeat on Syria would have really stimulated their appetite.

But the president is far from out of the woods politically.  What happens if the Russian plan is simply a ruse to buy time to protect the Syrian government from U.S. strikes?  Can the president then argue that at least he tried to give diplomacy a chance and still press for the authority to launch attacks?  And if Congress then refused, could he withstand the political firestorm if he decided to go ahead with strikes anyway?

It’s hard to see how there will be much of a shift in U.S. public opinion no matter what happens with the Russian effort.  And there remain too many Republicans who simply want the chance to vote against whatever the president wants to turn the tide in Congress, especially in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.


Strange Bedfellows

One of the fascinating dynamics of the congressional debate over Syria was the strange, yet seemingly organic, alliance of factions on the far left and right.  When was the last time you saw MoveOn.org and FreedomWorks, a leading Tea Party group, on the same page?  But the prospect of U.S. military action in Syria seemed to galvanize liberals who felt burned by the whole Iraq experience during the George W. Bush administration.  And it also breathed new life into conservative anti-Obama groups looking for any excuse to stoke the fires of political resentment.  Talk about a perfect storm.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Right, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov were trying to cut a deal on Syria in Geneva. Photo: AP

Of course, just when it looked bleakest for the president in Congress, “along came Putin” and the whole tenor of the debate quickly seemed to shift to “let’s give peace a chance.”

So the Russian diplomatic initiative gives everybody a little more time.  That might help President Obama down the road.  He can point to going the extra mile to try to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis if he ever has to go back to Congress and ask for its blessing on air strikes.  It also forces Putin and the Russians to step out a little further into the glare of the international spotlight, perhaps leading eventually to a “put your money where your mouth is” moment before the United Nations where everyone will be able to see if they were serious all along or just stalling.

But the diplomatic focus also ensures that Syria will continue to be a major priority for the administration for the foreseeable future, even as the president prepares to face a resistant Congress on a host of budget issues that have a direct effect on the U.S. economy.  For a president who was studious about avoiding U.S. involvement in Syria for the past two years, it’s an uncertain and risky new world.


Budget Wars Heat Up

Congress is back from its summer recess and it seems everybody is ready to resume what has become for many a tiresome series of political skirmishes over the federal budget.  Two major deadlines loom.  Congressional funding authority for the budget expires on October 1, and lawmakers will need to act to raise the debt limit borrowing authority by sometime in the middle of October.  As expected, both deadlines are fraught with political intrigue and posturing.

Over the past few months, conservative factions of Republicans in both the House of Representatives and the Senate have hardened in their opposition to the president’s health care law.  If anything, they are more determined now than they ever have been to find a way to either kill Obamacare or at the very least find a way to delay its implementation by a year.

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas is one of the Republicans leading the charge against the president’s health care plan, Obamacare. Photo: AP

This faction has some notable Republican supporters in the Senate, including Ted Cruz of Texas, Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky.  All three of these gentlemen are doing nothing to tamp down expectations that they will seek the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 2016.  In the House, more than 40 Republicans are insisting that the Republican leadership make a real attempt at defunding Obamacare even to the extent of risking a government shutdown.

Republicans got most of the blame for brief shutdowns in the 1990s and some veteran, more practical Republicans are trying to warn of the dangers of repeating that this year.  But this has become a rallying cry for Tea Party types and conservative purists, and many Republicans are watching carefully because they fear primary challenges from the right in next year’s midterm congressional elections if they don’t take a strong enough stand against the health care law.

So prepare for another round of budget roulette with not one, but two chances to head to the brink over shutting down the government.  Democrats are confident the Republicans will blink.  But they also acknowledge that Republican leaders right now either can’t or won’t try to challenge this hard-right faction, setting up another round of divisive political gamesmanship that tends to turn off the public and grinds the machinery of government to a halt.  Remember, it’s never too early to play politics by looking ahead to the next election.

One response to “Obama’s Syria Quandary”

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.


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