The Politics of Syria: Does Obama Have the Votes?

Posted: Sep 03, 2013 10:25 AM

Perhaps an equally interesting question is whether the final vote outcome actually matters, which we'll address in a moment.  But first, let's catch up with what transpired while most Americans were enjoying a leisurely Labor Day weekend.  President Obama, having set the stage for some form of limited military strike on Syria, announced that he would seek Congressional approval for such action.  The Associated Press quotes sources who say this decision was a last-minute reversal.  Since his about face, Obama has been working the phones and meeting with lawmakers at the White House in an attempt to rally members of both parties ahead of the vote.  The White House is expressing confidence that they'll garner bipartisan majorities when Congress reconvenes next week, but that outcome is far from certain:

The Obama administration, bolstered by evidence the Syrian government used lethal sarin gas on its own people, expressed confidence Sunday that Congress would back President Obama’s decision for a military strike on the Middle East country. However, the president and his inner circle worked furiously over the weekend to win congressional support, appearing on Sunday shows, holding classified briefings and making calls to Capitol Hill leaders.  A senior administration officials told Fox News that the president, Vice President Joe Biden and Chief of Staff Denis McDonough made phone calls on Sunday to senators and House members urging them to vote in favor of the authorization of military force in Syria.  The official called the lobbying effort a "flood the zone" strategy, in an apparent acknowledgement of just how hard winning Capitol Hill approval will be.

Unlike most political gridlock within the Beltway, this scenario is fraught with conflicted interests and strange bedfellows.  Consider the political dilemmas: Republicans, and some Democrats, have been critical of the president for ignoring his own "red line" ultimatum to the Assad regime, arguing that American credibility and prestige is on the line.  Most GOP members have also demanded that any strike be pre-cleared by Congress (though some have contended that the president has wide authority to act as he sees fit).  At long last, Obama has decided to do something to enforce the threshold he himself established.  Can Republicans now turn around and oppose him after lambasting his fecklessness?  Will they vote down an authorization of force resolution upon which they've insisted?  And one end of the Republican spectrum is Sen. Rand Paul, who is forcefully opposing any US intervention in Syria.  At the other are Rep. Peter King and Sen. John McCain, who huddled at the White House yesterday.  With whom will the rank-and-file align?  Will GOP leadership take a position on the question?  On the Democratic side of the aisle, the picture is just as murky.  I suspect leadership will follow the White House's lead and apply enormous pressure to support the president.  Some partisans will line up behind the leader of their party; others have antiwar constituents and consciences to grapple with.  Whether or not members believe a "targeted" Syria strike is wise, Pelosi and Reid will likely argue, the president will look extraordinarily isolated and weak if he loses the vote.  He's already been humiliatingly rebuffed by the Brits, and the Russians are actively supporting Assad.  The French are sort of on board, but equivocating.  If Obama loses a Congressional vote against that backdrop, his political clout will suffer yet another setback after a long, tough summer -- a conspicuous failure that could have a cascading effect across his already-endangered second term agenda.  

He'd also be backed into an impossible corner.  Does he comply with Congress' verdict, or does he go it completely alone, as the White House still says he has the power to do?   Regardless of its moral rectitude or recklessness, the latter move would present very problematic optics for a President and Secretary of State well known for castigating the Iraq war -- which was approved by Congress and joined by numerous allies.  (Kerry's infamous flip-flops on that conflict are the stuff of legend).  Unilateral action could ruffle Democrats' anti-war base, whose response to the Syria debate has been remarkably muted thus far.  Go figure.  That the administration is already spreading word that Obama may act on his own irrespective of how the vote goes is sufficient evidence that the administration's professed confidence is pure theater at the moment.  As for whip counts, any rumors at this stage are pretty useless.  Congress is scattered around the country, and any hesitant, over-the-phone 'soft' commitments in either direction could look very different once everyone is back in town.  Which brings us to another huge X factor: Public opinion, which has cut decidedly against any US military intervention in Syria.  All of that polling was taken prior to last week's speeches from Kerry and Obama, though, so the needle may have moved -- assuming anyone was paying attention at the onset of a holiday weekend.  Public opinion shouldn't be the ultimate determinative factor on crucial war-and-peace national security decisions, but the notion that politicians discount polling on these questions is beyond naive.  For instance, one wonders what might have caused Obama's change of heart over Congressional authorization.

On substance, this isn't an easy call for the president, which helps explain his dithering.  Obama may see his choices as lose-lose propositions.  Military strikes against the Syrian regime are very much a zero-sum action.  They will redound to the rebels' benefit, even if Assad's forces exploit the current political delay to minimize the damage a few cruise missiles might inflict.  A blow to Assad is a boon to Al-Qaeda backed opposition.  Do we really want to be assisting these people?  On the other hand, a setback for the regime would send a signal to Assad's patrons in Tehran, which does serve American interests.  Not intervening would allow the war between two deeply unattractive camps continue, which might not seem like the worst idea until one considers the humanitarian catastrophe playing out, as well as worries that the conflict could continue to metasticize throughout the region.  Inaction would also make a complete mockery of American "red lines," which Iran's mullahs would undoubtedly notice, too.  The political and geopolitical calculus here is extremely complex.  The White House is exuding confidence, but even some administration allies are whispering that Obama is fundamentally misreading Congress' mood.  What unfolds over the next week or so will be fascinating to watch.  I can't imagine Sec. Kerry's somewhat incoherent Fox News Sundayappearance helped the administration's cause very much.  And does the president's brain trust ever tell him that playing a round of golf might send a bad message to a reluctant public?  With the drums of war growing louder by the day, Americans at least want a sense that their Commander-in-Chief knows what he's doing.  Obama is teetering on the brink of a public confidence implosion.  Much is at stake.

- Speaker Boehner (and now Majority Leader Cantor) just announced his support for a military strike in Syria, saying that the regime's use of chemical weapons cannot be tolerated.  This sets up a dynamic in which both parties' leadership will back the president.  Will rank-and-file members follow suit?

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