The politics of Syria

By Bill Schneider
September 4, 2013

Congressional Democrats are in a bind. If they vote to authorize a military strike on Syria, they could be putting the country on a slippery slope to war. But if they vote no, they will deliver a crushing defeat to their president.

What President Barack Obama did was call their bluff. Last week, more than 50 House Democrats signed a letter urging the president to “seek an affirmative decision of Congress” before committing to any military engagement. That was the Democrats’ way of going on record to express reservations about what Obama sounded like he was going to do anyway. Then, lo and behold, the president decided to do exactly what they asked. Now it’s their decision.

Anti-war sentiment is a powerful force on the left. It was nurtured by bitter experiences in Vietnam and Iraq. Obama himself comes out of that tradition. He is trying to keep faith with it by arguing, as he did at a meeting with congressional leaders, that his attack plan is “proportional, it is limited, it does not involve boots on the ground.” He added, “This is not Iraq, and this is not Afghanistan.” Secretary of State John Kerry tried to change the metaphor when he called it “a Munich moment.” Meaning, a “no” vote would be a vote to appease a dictator.

The president cannot afford to lose this vote. If he does, his authority will be severely weakened. He will find it difficult to get anything passed for the remainder of his term — budget deal, immigration reform, funding for Obamacare, climate change legislation. He will instantly become a lame duck.

To win, Obama needs to carry a solid majority of Democrats. Most Republicans will vote no. A lot of Tea Party Republicans want to use the vote to bring Obama down. Rather than debate the policy, they will argue that this president is simply not competent to carry it out. They don’t believe he should be given war-making powers. If Obama can’t keep his own party behind him, Republicans are not going to bail him out.

The president claims that he has the authority to carry out the strikes without congressional authorization. If he does that after Congress has voted “no,” House Republicans will likely move to impeach him. It’s exactly the pretext they’ve been looking for. A Washington Post-ABC News poll shows 59 percent of Americans opposed to the missile strikes. Ironically, Syria is a rare issue on which you find bipartisan agreement: 54 percent of Democrats and 55 percent of Republicans oppose an attack. Opposition is even stronger among women (65 percent), racial minorities (63 percent), low-income people (63 percent), liberals (62 percent) and Americans with advanced degrees (60 percent). Those people are the Democratic Party’s base.

The president has to persuade the public that the United States must act, not in its national interest, but in its international interest — as the principal guarantor of world order. At his news conference on Wednesday, Obama said, “My credibility is not on the line.  International credibility is on the line.”  More than 180 countries – but not Syria — signed the Chemical Weapons Convention.  The United States is the only country with the capability of enforcing it.

The rule for 65 years has been that, when there is a serious threat to international order, nothing will happen unless the United States acts — as we did in Kuwait and Kosovo and Afghanistan and Libya. And as we didn’t in Rwanda.

Obama acknowledged the rule when he said in his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, “The plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.”

There is a problem with the rule, however. The American public does not accept that responsibility. Americans do not want to commit this country to the use of force unless they see a threat to our vital interests. And they do not feel threatened by Syria. The public thinks it’s none of our business. The war in Syria is a civil war. It involves Islamic sects, Sunnis versus Shi’ites, neither of whom is friendly to the United States. One side is supported by Iran, the other by al Qaeda. How is the United States supposed to pick sides in that fight?

Defying public opinion is an extremely risky thing to do. The president and Congress defied public opinion during the Carter administration by ratifying the deeply unpopular Panama Canal treaties. It cost the Democrats several Senate seats and contributed to Jimmy Carter’s defeat in 1980. In 2010, the federal bailout of big Wall Street financial institutions was highly unpopular. The bailout generated a Tea Party rebellion and cost several Republicans their seats.

Representative Tom Cole (R-Okla.) summarized the president’s dilemma this way to the New York Times: “He is a war president without a war party.”

The argument that’s likely to be most convincing to Democrats is a partisan one: This is a vote to save their president. Obama has staked the remainder of his presidency on it. Are his fellow Democrats really willing to vote no and allow his enemies to bring him down?

That’s a naked political calculation. But it may be what it takes to bring nervous and skeptical Democrats over to his side.

 

PHOTO (Top): President Barack Obama speaks about Syria during a joint news conference with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt at the prime minister’s office in Stockholm, Sweden September 4, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

PHOTO (Insert): Secretary of State John Kerry presents the administration’s case for U.S. military action against Syria to a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in Washington September 3, 2013. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

6 comments

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This has nothing to do with the direct interests of the United States or some post-WWII “moral obligation”. And a reminder, this is a sixty year old policy this same President attacked repeatedly under his “hope and change” mantra while at the same time engaging Islam to promote a new relationship with the U.S. His ego, inexperience and ignorance of world affairs is showing.

It’s now about a President who shot his mouth off, did not back it up with the authority he has, and now looks to seek Congressional support for a decision he owns. This President is incapable of taking action on anything, except giving speeches.

The author is wrong on one item: This has nothing to do with the Republicans wanting the President to fail, and everything to do with the fact that Republicans do not believe this has nothing to do with our national interests. Getting involved in a civil war, where both sides hate us (until they need us) is not a choice–it’s a pending disaster.

No one is asking the question: What course of action will we take should Syria attack any of our allies: Saudi, Israel, Kuwait, Turkey–does any politician see a potential Pandora’s box? It’s right before their eyes–but they expect Syria will not respond. The rule of war “the enemy has the ability to influence any perceived outcome.”

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

This is actually a win-win for the president.

a) congress votes with him, Assad is prevented or discouraged from continuing WMB CE genocide and confidence in the USA by the rest of the world is confirmed.

b) congress votes no, president can say he listened to the will of the American people and stay out of that war. Stinks for the Syrians being slaughtered but they are mostly enemies on both sides, either side happy to chant death to America and burn our flags.

Posted by Timbuk3 | Report as abusive

I agree with Timbuk3. Taking it to Congress makes sense, and that’s what the President did. As for having ‘shot off his mouth,’ I disagree completely. If chemical weapons are not a red line, then why did we go into Iraq? The fact that Bush completely made stuff up and lied to Congress…. that’s not Obama’s fault.

Bottom line, we have a situation. Time to discuss options.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Mr. Schneider seems to be writing this article or opinion for the AIPAC. The Israeli Lobby is highly in favor of the US involvement in Syria. Unless we bomb to death virtually every living creature ground troops (US Soldiers)will have to be deployed.

Congress has the opportunity to stand with Americans or with the Israel’s Political Action Committee. AIPAC does not give a rat’s butt about US Soldiers. Why fight when you can get the goy to do it.

Posted by SenatorHornDog | Report as abusive

Obama needs to listen to the American public and they overwhelmingly oppose any Syrian action. This does not have anything to do with our interests or our ‘international interests’ – his comments to the contrary are total BS..
Our Allies do not support intervention, the ‘useless’ UN does not support intervention, and the American people do not support intervention..
Obama took it to Congress because he painted himself into a corner with his idiotic ‘red line’ threats and Assad called his bluff.. guess who blinked – the ‘rookie’..
Now he wants Congress to bail him out; November ’14 is right around the corner and congress should tell obama to stick to what he does best – playing golf..

Posted by willich6 | Report as abusive

I don’t see how this is a ‘win win’.
A) There’s no guarantee that Assad won’t use his chemical weapons for the very reason that this administration has already implied that he is a war criminal, and made likely the targeting of those weapons. Assad must know that if he loses, he stands a very good chance ALREADY of being tried as a war criminal. Any incentive he may have had NOT to use those weapons is removed, the moment we decide to act against Syria. In fact, Assad or his underlings (or a group operating at the behest of Iran) may decide to expand the conflict and thus our entanglement, by launching some of them against populated areas in Israel.

B) Congress votes no, and the world observes as a ‘red line’ laid down by the executive is shown as the bluff it was. US credibility suffers, and we have at least 2 years of extreme global danger as our rivals feel an increased freedom to act in defiance of our wishes. A lack of confidence in the President is exhibited in full public view by Congress, and as described in the article he instantly becomes nearly powerless. . .

I am glad Obama DID choose to take it to Congress. It gives our nation a shot at avoiding this conflict. . .which I feel is worth the increased short-term global risk of a lame-duck President. Hopefully our elected representatives will follow the will of the people, and vote to keep us out.

Posted by Yashmak | Report as abusive