Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- President Obama's decision to seek Congress' approval for a limited, punitive missile strike in Syria is a high-stakes gamble that could further weaken his troubled presidency at home and abroad.

He surprised his national security team last week when he announced he would seek a time-consuming House and Senate vote of approval first, a process that will delay any action for at least two weeks. Obviously the element of surprise is not in this administration's military rule book.

That will give Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad more time to move critical military materials and weaponry, step up his brutal attacks on rebel strongholds and plan some kind of counterassault.

There were reports Assad has moved missile launchers and other weapons into highly populated residential areas where they will be safe from U.S. cruise missile strikes.

On Sunday, his regime publicly mocked Obama's public "prevaricating" that its state-run newspaper described as "the start of the historic American retreat."

Even more dangerous for the president is the risk of an embarrassing rejection in either chamber, or a very close vote, wasting precious political capital on Capitol Hill that he will need for future legislative battles. Among them: the budget and debt-ceiling bills.

The congressional terrain on both sides of the political aisle was deeply divided over getting the U.S. into Syria's bloody civil war. Many were openly voicing doubts about its impact and outcome, while others questioned Obama's limited military objectives and even his motives.

Obama warned Assad a year ago that any use of deadly chemical weapons in the war would cross a "red line" that would lead to military retribution from the United States.

There is no doubt that the nerve gas sarin was used by Assad's military to kill innocent civilians in Damascus' suburbs and elsewhere. And U.S. intelligence surveillance shows Assad gave the green light to use such weapons as rebels drew closer to Syria's capital.

But no sooner had Obama announced his intentions to wage a limited attack and began briefing lawmakers over the weekend, his plan came under a wave of criticism and growing doubts from Capitol Hill.

While congressional approval may face a slightly better chance in the Democratic-run Senate than the Republican House, neither chamber is a safe bet. There's a sizable anti-war caucus among the Democrats and a number of like-minded libertarian-leaning Republicans whose military motto is "Beware of foreign entanglements."

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.