Barack Obama made the biggest gamble of his presidency on Saturday. By saying that he'd seek Congressional authorization to wage air strikes on the Syrian regime in response to its use of chemical weapons, he quite literally put the geopolitical standing of the United States to a vote. If he loses, then Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-Un will have discovered that America's fatal flaw is a commander-in-chief who wants to line up behind legislators before taking what he himself acknowledges is necessary military action. This will not be that wondrous paradox of "leading from behind," it will be a you-first deferral of leadership altogether, and to a body notoriously riven between and amongst war-weary centrists, a handful of ardent hawks, and not a few Tea Party ignoramuses and libertarian isolationists. (Public opinion has a greater collective taste for sending cruise missiles into Syria than it does for congratulating the national legislature on anything.)
For those who already believe that Congress is little more than a rubber-stamp assembly for America's most powerful lobby groups, the failure to secure a war vote will suggest that if a totalitarian wishes to gas 1,400 people to death in his capital city, he need only check with the special interests. Syrians have already noticed the sudden efflorescence, like algae at the bottom of a pool, of various "peace" campaigns on Facebook and Twitter, most of which are nakedly pro-Assad in their orientation. The Kremlin is said to be mulling whether or not to dispatch a Duma delegation to pressure Congress against military action, a strategy the United States need never repay in kind when it comes to persuading the Duma to change its mind on institutionalizing homophobia or American adoption bans. Meanwhile, the Russian state-owned media want us all to know that they're hip to what really makes the world go round; they've been warning of a massive Syrian retaliation against Israel should the U.S. intervene. Herein lies another easy backfire in Obama's Hill initiative. As Jeffrey Goldberg has pointed out, there's a nervous irony in seeing this president deputizing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to sell a policy whose long-term consequence may be the toppling of an Arab dictatorship that is more and more becoming a suzerain of Iran.
These are my criticisms of the president's approach. But there is also much to be said for his gamble if the vote passes. He'll have made every elected representative, and therefore the American people who elected them, co-owners of his Syria policy. He will have also achieved far greater legitimacy in confronting Assad and dispelling any suggestion that this undertaking was cowboyish or adventurist in nature. (Even Rand Paul, who professes to care only for Syria's Christian minority and seems to believe that the mullahs are still undecided about whether or not to get involved in this conflict, gets to have a vote).
So what are Obama's odds? So far, Speaker of the House John Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi all support the president. Yet there are mutterings that this may not be sufficient. According to Politico, "[s]everal lawmakers and aides who have been canvassing support say that nearly 80 percent of the House Republican Conference is, to some degree, opposed to launching strikes in Syria. Informal counts by Obama allies show that support in Congress for Obama's plans is in the low dozens." And yet, the G.O.P. never likes to look a squish on matters of national security, particularly when it's the guy they see as the second coming of Jimmy Carter sending warships to the Middle East. The White House can effectively marshal the argument that if sheer hatred for Obama or suspicion of his incompetence is motivating a "no" vote, then it will be the Republicans explaining to their constituencies why they gave succor to a mass murdering tyrant and emboldened Iran in its quest for a nuclear bomb. Even the socialists in France are sounding more macho.
The more pressing question I have is this: Where is the president ultimately going on Syria and does he have an actual strategy not just for winning the argument for intervention but for waging a worthwhile and successful campaign?
Last week, the White House line was all about preparing the nation for a quick and easy "punitive" strike against Assad, a "shot across his bow," as the president put, meaning essentially a Tomahawk-delivered demarche and nothing more. As far as deterrence is concerned, this simply wouldn't work: Assad would weather the missiles, and then start right back up again, probably using WMD -- a fact now well appreciated by Secretary of State John Kerry.
Yet even in nothing-to-see-here mode, the administration was sending flirtatious hints that it was purposefully downplaying its own war plan to win maximum domestic and international support. First, you do not need two or three days of bombardment to make a point. But this was the circulated timeframe for proposed airstrikes, based on anonymous leaks from "senior officials" to the press. Second, the draft text of the war bill the White House released to Congress was remarkably expansive: "the objective of the United States' use of military force in connection with this authorization should be to deter, disrupt, prevent, and degrade the potential for, future uses of chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction." The new draft of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee version, said to be a curtailment of executive war powers, still gives the president a full three months to finish the job, two without notifying Congress of his intentions.