Drums of war are beating loud, matched in turn by the high-decibel resistance of objectors, conscientious and otherwise. In the midst of this cacophony, Mr Obama is going to Capitol Hill to seek permission to bomb Syria. He is unlikely to get it. He is also unlikely to take any serious action against Syria without such license.
Contrary to the many who view the strikes as imminent and inevitable, Damascus will be spared that dreaded shower of Cruise missiles. Here are five reasons why Obama will lose the fight for the right to fight.
One, unreliable and unlikely allies. Left standing virtually alone on the international stage, Obama has been forced to look for friends in all the wrong places. The support of prominent Republicans like Senator John McCain and and House Speaker John Boehner has been tomtomed as signs of a likely victory in Congress -- when the reality is a bit more complicated.
McCain's investment in winning this vote is best summed up by photos of him playing poker on his iPhone during a Senate committee hearing on the proposed intervention. As for Boehner, sure he supports the resolution, but isn't planning to lift a finger to help it along.
"While most top congressional leaders have vowed to back President Barack Obama in seeking authority to launch missile strikes, there’s little evidence that they can — or even want to — help him round up the rank-and file-Republicans he’ll need to win a vote in the House," reports Politico.com.
Speaker John Boehner’s spokesman said that he “expects the White House to provide answers to members’ questions and take the lead on any whipping effort.” Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), whose aides and allies run the whip process, isn’t yet in favor of Obama’s request for military authority in Syria. Several 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.
This is hardly surprising since the Republicans gain little by supporting Obama, irrespective of their opinions on the wisdom of military action. If the strikes are successful, Obama will receive all the glory. But if the strikes turn into a military nightmare, they will share in the blame, and will have to answer to the unhappy Republican voters in their local districts. Better to find reasons -- and there are many -- to block the resolution, and leave Obama to act alone if he must.
Two, the ghosts of Iraq. The debacle may have not prevented the Obama administration from doubling down in Afghanistan or striking Libya, but it has left behind an electoral legacy in the United States. No politician wants another "Iraq vote" on his record. The 2002 congressional vote to authorise military action in Iraq turned into a political albatross for members of Congress and presidential hopefuls, who were forced to justify their support for George Bush's greatest act of hubris. A reason perhaps why the two potential Republican presidential hopefuls, Rand Paul and Marc Rubio, voted against the recent Senate committee resolution.
"That vote has haunted several Senators for years, and many have said they wish they would have voted differently," notes MSNBC.com. And the specter of Iraq looms larger than ever with the 2014 midterm elections round the corner. USA Today reports:
Whatever the outcome of the vote, Syria could be an issue in key Senate races next year, when Republicans hope to wrest six seats away from Democrats and take control of the chamber. "If (a war in Syria) gets complicated, then it could become a problem for everybody," says Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report.
The picture in the House of Representatives -- where all seats are up for grabs next year -- is bleaker still:
That opposition is evident throughout the ranks of the Democratic and Republican caucuses — and among their constituents — who haven’t yet, and may never, draw the conclusion that the horror of Assad using chemical weapons is a matter of urgent U.S. national security. Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) tweeted Tuesday that “constituents who have contacted my office by phone or mail oppose action in Syria 523-4 so far.” Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), who is libertarian, said on Twitter that four of about 200 constituents he encountered support action in Syria.
As Republican strategist Ford O'Connell told Xinhua, "If you're not sure which way your political future is going, the 'no' vote is the safe one."
Three, John Kerry. "[A]t this point, the overwhelming narrative is that authorizing military action in Syria will be one of the toughest sells of Obama’s time in the White House," notes Politico And the White House has chosen precisely the wrong salesman to make their case.
“Our intelligence community has carefully reviewed and re-reviewed information regarding this attack,” Kerry said in an address to the State Department. “And I will tell you it has done so more than mindful of the Iraq experience. We will not repeat that moment.” But he didn't point out the other big difference between making the case for Syria versus Iraq: Colin Powell.
Kerry possesses neither the gravitas nor the credibility of a Powell thanks to his unfortunate record on the electoral stump as a presidential candidate in the 2004 elections. In one of his more infamous moments of equivocation, he scrambled to explain his vote for an $87 billion supplemental appropriation for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, sayingq "I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it."
Kerry's own fumbling alongwith the vicious Swift Boat attacks helped the Bush campaign to successfully paint the Democrat as an unreliable flip-flopper. His word may carry some weight with his fellow Senators, but will hold little water with their voters -- who, as poll numbers consistently show, remain far from persuaded of the wisdom of yet another military intervention.
Four, permission to do, um, what? Kerry's penchant for self-goals was evident in his testimony in front of the Senate Foreign Relations committee where he managed to flip-flop on exactly what kind of action the Congress was authorising. First he demanded a broad resolution that would permit the White House to do pretty much anything, including putting boots on the ground:
In the event Syria imploded, for instance, or in the event there was a threat of a chemical weapons cache falling into the hands of al-Nusra or someone else, and it was clearly in the interests of our allies and all of us — the British, the French and others — to prevent those weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of the worst elements, I don’t want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to a president of the United States to secure our country.
Faced with a series of anxious follow-ups from committee members, he retreated in haste, saying:
This authorization does not contemplate and should not have any allowance for any troop on the ground. I just want to make that absolutely clear. You know, what I was doing was hypothesizing about a potential; it might occur at some point in time, but not in this authorization, in no way, be crystal clear. There’s no problem in our having the language that has zero capacity for American troops on the ground within the authorization the president is asking for.
Right. Confusion reigns over what the Obama administration intends to do, and how far it is willing to go to do so. It is one reason the President has failed entirely to persuade the American people. The ambivalence -- and resultant skittishness -- will only increase as various factions in Congress pitch in with their versions of the resolution.
Five, Obama the unhappy warrior. He incautiously drew that red line in the sand, and now has to put his arsenal where his mouth was back in August, 2012, when he promised "enormous consequences" if Syrian President Assad used chemical weapons. Obama did his best to ignore small-scale chemical attacks for a year until ghastly video footage of dead babies left him with little face-saving choice. Syria's defiance has now been framed as "a defining test," as Time magazine puts it, of America's reputation and might.
But as the same cover story makes clear, this US President has little appetite for intervention in the Middle East, having laid low through the Arab Spring, and struck against Libya only when European allies stepped forward. Above all, Obama is a man of great caution, a quality that is both his great weakness and virtue. The decision to seek a congressional vote -- "overriding all his top national security advisers" -- is likely motivated by a desire to avoid being rushed headlong into battle. As Amy Davidson writes in the New Yorker:
This may be the first sensible step that Obama has taken in the Syrian crisis, and may prove to be one of the better ones of his Presidency—even if he loses the vote, as could happen. Politically, he may have just saved his second term from being consumed by Benghazi-like recriminations and spared himself Congressional mendacity about what they all might have done. It will likely divide the G.O.P. Although he said that he didn’t really, truly need to ask Congress for permission, he is doing so. Presidents—including Obama, in his decision to ignore the War Powers Act in Libya despite its clear application—have abandoned even the pretense that they need to seek Congressional approval.
However, a president who seeks approval when he doesn't need it is unlikely to ignore the outcome of Congressional vote. When he loses in Congress -- as he likely will -- Obama will have take it on the jaw, as the price of being "the President of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy," as he describes it.
If Congress is loath to make history as being the first to deny a sitting president the authority to wage war, the resultant brouhaha will end instead in a whimper, as in a one-time authorisation for a single strike that will achieve little, either in symbolic or military terms. And that may constitute a greater defeat for Obama, who will spend the rest of the term as a lame-duck president both abroad and at home.