WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama’s stunning reversal on Syria — deciding to ask Congress to approve the use of force just hours after he seemed set on bypassing the legislative branch — amounts to a massive gamble by the commander in chief.
There is little certainty of the outcome of the vote, which will come the week of Sept. 9, when both houses of Congress return to Washington after the August recess. And, if Congress doesn’t pass the resolution, Obama will be in an even smaller box, policy-wise, than he found himself at the end of last week following the British Parliament’s rejection of a similar use-of-force resolution.
First, consider that roughly 40 percent of House Democrats voted against the use of force resolution against Iraq in 2002. (Unlike 2002, Democrats have one of their own in the White House now, but the 2010 election made the caucus more liberal — and more opposed to military action — than it was in 2002.)
Second, Obama is in the middle of his second term. He has one eye on his legacy; all — or at least the vast majority — of the Democratic members he will ask to vote in favor of striking Syria are working towards the 2014 election. Those are two very different calculations — especially when you consider that many of the Democrats whom Obama will need are running in districts where the only real threat is from their ideological left. A vote for a controversial military action is perfect fodder for a liberal challenger looking for an issue that will take down a Democratic incumbent.
Third, Obama’s relationship with Congress has never been all that great. He spent little time there during his own career, and Democratic House strategists have long believed that Obama is semi-openly disdainful of the people’s House.
Fourth, the shadow of Iraq looms. You can tell how much by listening to Secretary of State John Kerry make the case for action in Syria on Friday. “Our intelligence community has carefully reviewed and re-reviewed information regarding this attack,” Kerry said. “And I will tell you it has done so more than mindful of the Iraq experience. We will not repeat that moment.”
The question is whether Kerry’s testimony in front of House and Senate committees this week can convince lawmakers of that fact. And, because of how Iraq (and the lack of WMDs) played out, the hurdle is that much higher.
Despite all of those factors arguing against passage, Obama pushed forward for a vote — believing, according to behind-the-scenes reporting done by The Washington Post’s Scott Wilson, that if he end-ran Congress on this issue he might lose any chance to work with them on things such as the looming government shutdown and the debt ceiling.
That makes sense if the resolution passes. But, if it fails and Obama goes forward with a military action anyway — as administration officials have made quite clear they believe he can and might do — relations with Republicans in Congress (and, in truth, many Democrats) will be even more strained.
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