President Obama hopes to convince Congress this week that U.S. national security depends on a retaliatory airstrike against Syria—even though all signs point to “no.”
With lawmakers returning today from their August recess, the administration is busily pitching its argument that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must be punished for his use of chemical weapons.
Armed with a video showing how Assad gassed those who oppose his regime, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough took to the Sunday chat shows to claim that—without intervention—chemical attacks could possibly be launched against the United States and its allies.
“We didn't go to Congress because we thought this was an empty exercise,” McDonough told ABC News. “We are investing a lot of time and effort in this because we think Congress should be a full partner in our national security matters. And when they are, we're stronger as a country.”
But since 2010, Congress has been a thorn in the administration’s side. It stalled on the debt ceiling in 2011—and House Republicans appear prepared to do so again next month when the government’s borrowing authority must be increased. Obama could not persuade congressional leaders to compromise on a budget, causing the country to run on a series of automatic spending cuts and stop-gap measures.
Once again, the administration could find itself forced to tell the country that it must proceed without Congress’ stamp of approval.
The White House need look no further than its budget battles with Congress over the past two years to recognize: 1.) It lacks adequate credibility with too many members; and 2.) Lawmakers are losing their appetite to fund the military at its current levels.
“It seemed to me for at least two-and-a-half years that the atmosphere had changed,” said Gordon Adams, a professor of foreign policy at American University. “We’re coming out of two wars and there is not an appetite to engage in foreign adventures.”
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI) is among the 25 congressmen backing the use of force in Syria, a sympathizer who believes the administration has already botched its outreach.
“It's an uphill slog from here,” Rogers told CBS News. “And part of the problem was they started today, or last week. They really needed to start two years ago on this process and really haven't done it. So they don't have strong relationships in Congress today. That's a huge problem for them.”
Out of 435 representatives, 143 have said they plan to oppose the resolution authorizing the use of force. Another 256 of them are undecided, including 149 Democrats, according to CNN.
More than half of the Senate is undecided. An outspoken Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has endorsed the attack, but some such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) fear that an aerial strike would cause the sarin gas being stockpiled by Assad to flow through the Middle East to enemies of the United States and its allies.
“I think there is a chance he's more emboldened if we do attack him,” Paul told “Fox News Sunday.” “The worst case scenario is that the stockpiles of sarin gas begin to move about the country, and maybe they go to Hezbollah and they go into Lebanon and become more of a threat to Israel. I think that's more likely to happen if we attack Assad than if we don't attack Assad.”
Similar concerns were raised by an ostensible Obama ally, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-CA).
“I haven't heard any of our interests,” Sanchez said. “I haven't heard that Assad wants to use weapons against us. I haven't heard that he wants to use the weapons against our allies, that he's moving them to terrorist organizations. So I'm asking, where is the national security issue?”
The California Democrat worries that the United States could soon be entangled in Syria’s civil war by launching missiles, even though Obama has assured the country that the operation should last for a few months and pledged to not put boots on the ground—a restriction that the administration does not want in the congressional resolution.
“It's a civil war and we're taking sides with the rebels, many of whom are still associated with Al Qaeda, the groups that mean to undermine us,” Sanchez said. “So for the president to say this is just a very quick thing and we're out of there, that's how wrong wars start.”
That same skeptical rhetoric is reflected in the budget blueprints that Congress will be debating after the Syria vote.
Scarred by the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, Democrats and Republicans aren’t just trigger shy—but actively trying to reduce the Pentagon budget. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are estimated to cost as much as $6 trillion in total, according to research by Harvard University’s Linda Bilmes.
Unable to agree on a budget deal in 2011, Obama and Congress settled on a decade-long $500 billion in automatic cuts to defense spending through the sequester.
Even their alternatives to sequestration foresee a smaller role for the Pentagon in the world. Over the past 40 years, the government devoted 4.7 percent of gross domestic product to defense spending. Under the House Republican budget blueprint, that figure would drop to 2.7 percent by 2023, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Obama and Senate Democrats would drop it down to 2.3 percent. Since 1948, that figure has never gone below 3.1 percent—1999 and 2001—according to historic tables by the Office of Management and Budget.
The United States could still easily fund the Syria operation—estimated to cost $500 million to $1 billion—without eating too deeply into a Pentagon budget of about $600 billion.
Congressional leaders have yet to link Syria to the budget debate—yet many of them are concluding that the benefits of a bombing are not worth the potential price tag in blood and treasure.
Winslow Wheeler at the Project on Government Oversight said that the level of defense spending remains huge even after sequestration, but that projections of how much an intervention costs are highly speculative.
“The cost of Syria is unknown,” he said. “The ‘estimates’ to date pretend they know how long it will last. Recall the OMB estimate that Iraq would cost [about] $60 billion.”