Obama Loses Abroad but Wins at Home with Syria Ploy
Policy + Politics

Obama Loses Abroad but Wins at Home with Syria Ploy


The path forward for the United States in Syria became increasingly unclearthis weekend, as key U.S. lawmakers from both parties hinted that Congressional approval of military intervention there would be difficult to pass.

During a rare Labor Day meeting on Monday, 83 lawmakers, including some who flew in from their home districts with just a days’ noticed, were briefed by national security officials. Some complained that the scope of the resolution proposed by the administration was too broad. Others said thehopes were dimming of any resolution passing Congress.

“I think it’s going to be a very tough sell,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), adding that he is not leaning toward authorizing any use of force.

Even lawmakers from the president's own party said that they were unsure over what the use of force, most likely in the form of cruise missiles, would accomplish.

"I don’t think there’s a lot of doubt that the regime undertook this attack. There’s a great deal of skepticism that a limited strike is likely to be effective,” said Rep. Jim Himes (D-CT).

Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel are set to testify in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday as part of what many expect to be an intense marketing effort ahead of a September 9 vote on the resolution. Other administration officials are expected to privately lobby for action.

But it seems clear that this effort will be fruitless. Given Congressional gridlock, it's highly unlike that the resolution proposed by the White House will pass. A watered down resolution – which the White House said it was amenable to late Monday -- appears more likely.

This is bad news for the president on the international front, as it makes him appear weak and unable to follow through on his threats. But on the home front, Obama has placed himself in a position that will guarantee a positive outcome in the short run no matter what Congress decides.

Obama threatened action against Syria late last year, telling the world that the use of chemical weapons would be a "red-line" that warranted U.S. intervention. But by last Friday, it was clear that no such line existed.

The lack of action after making a serious threat is a great blow to U.S. credibility, especially ahead of the G-20 summit later this week in Russia.

"This decision is now thrown into the gridlock of American politics,” Vali Nasr, a Middle East expert who used to work for the administration, said Sunday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is hosting the summit, had already begun taunting Obama for his inability to follow through on U.S. threats.


"We need to remember what's happened in the last decade, the number of times the United States has initiated armed conflicts in various parts of the world. Has it solved a single problem?" Putin asked reporters Saturday in Russia. "Afghanistan, as I said, Iraq ... After all, there is no peace there, no democracy, which our partners allegedly sought."

The lack of action also weakens the hand of two of Obama's key advisers on international affairs: National Security Adviser Susan Rice and United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power. Both are staunch interventionists who were thought to be brought into the administration to take a harder line on brutal regimes like Bashar al-Assad's Syria.

Obama’s empty threat also abandons Israel and Saudi Arabia, two key Middle Eastern allies. According to reports, leaders in both countries were hoping for a forceful response from the United States. They now are forced to confront the problem on their own.

At the same time, Obama’s decision to take Syria to Congress is a win on the national political stage. It spreads responsibility for whatever outcome is ultimately achieved.

Action against Syria remains unpopular with the American public: According to a recent NBC poll, half of the American public does not want to intervene in Syria and 80 percent wanted Congressional approval of any strike.

This allows Obama to look strong on national security, allowing his administration to argue that it wanted to act, but Congress did not allow it to. It also helps to quiet criticisms of an imperial presidency that doesn’t seek authorization from lawmakers.

If no action is taken and violence in Syria continues, the president would be able to blame the traditionally hawkish Republicans for failing to allow him to act. Potential Republican presidential candidates have seemingly acknowledged the difficult spot they’re now in, making non-committal statements about the course forward.

"Because the President failed to act in the right way at the right time, we are now left with no good options. Failing to act would further embolden Assad and his Iranian sponsors, leaving the impression that America is feckless and impotent," Republican Senator and 2016 GOP hopeful Marco Rubio (FL) wrote last week. "And a limited attack would do nothing to change the dynamics of the conflict, but could trigger a broader and even more dangerous conflict in the region."