President Obama to Congress: Do the right thing.
With obstructionist Republicans in charge of the House, the right thing seldom gets done. Mostly, nothing gets done. But the president has gambled that this time, with the evidence overwhelming that the Assad regime gassed Syrian civilians, Congress will overcome its petty bickering and most Republicans will resist the temptation to say no because they like saying no to Barack Obama.
After all, saying no just to say no is not a foreign policy nor a national security initiative.
Obama has co-opted Congress by asking for authorization to strike against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons. If Congress grants his request, the president’s position will be stronger than if acted without congressional approval. If Congress votes against a military attack, then the onus for not punishing a regime for blatantly ignoring international norms and common morality will fall on the legislative branch.
Either way, Congress will own the decision.
The administration faces a hard sell in persuading Congress to vote for a retaliatory strike. In most of his domestic initiatives the president has enjoyed nearly unanimous support from fellow Democrats. On Syria, the political calculus is more complicated. Many liberal Democrats, weary of more than a decade of ill-conceived wars begun under the previous Republican administration, are reluctant to vote for another military endeavor.
For Republicans, the political landscape is more complicated. There are the neoconservatives who never met a war they didn’t like; on the other side, there is the libertarian wing of the party which veers toward isolationism. Some Republicans will vote no to anything Obama supports. Others want bolder action than the likely three-day strike against limited targets.
Republican presidential candidates are mindful of the perils of a vote on a military operation. The example of Senator Hillary Clinton’s 2002 vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq is fresh; that vote, seemingly safe at the time, haunted Clinton during the 2008 primary campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. It allowed a relatively unknown first-term Senator named Barack Obama, an opponent of the war, to appeal to liberal antiwar activists.
The divisions among Republicans were on display recently in the public spat, over national surveillance, between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, representing the party’s interventionist wing, and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, speaking for the libertarian, isolationist faction.
Paul announced his position Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press. “I think it’s a mistake to get involved in the Syrian civil war,” the senator said. “But absolutely, if Congress votes this down, we should not be involved in the Syrian war. And I think it’s at least 50/50 whether the House will vote down involvement in the Syrian war.
Other potential GOP candidates are being more circumspect. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida opposes an action intended merely “to send a message or save face.” Texas Senator Ted Cruz, not usually reticent, had declined comment on the president’s decision to seek congressional approval; Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan also has remained silent.
The president, aware of the complications involved in his bold move, evidently believes he and his surrogates will be able to make the case that the heinousness of using chemical weapons demands a response by the United States and that action is necessary to deter the Syrian dictator and other tinhorn despots from using weapons of mass destruction.
The final arrow in the administrations’s quiver is Iran. Threats against the mullahs in Tehran for pursuing the acquisition of nuclear weapons will have no meaning, it will be argued, if the United States idly stands by while Syria flouts international law and prior warnings from the United States.