Inside the Political Game Being Played Over the Congress Vote On Syria


What happens when four former senators sit atop America’s national security infrastructure? They ask their old colleagues for permission to do something despite claiming not to need it.

Perhaps having Barack Obama, Joe Biden, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel sitting at the head of the table in the White House Situation Room makes decisiveness difficult. Legislators generally, and senators in particular, are rarely known for quick decisions – deliberation is their stock in trade.

After British Prime Minister David Cameron failed to win parliamentary approval for military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Obama abruptly shifted its course on Syria – deciding that, rather than exercising his authority under the War Powers Act, President Obama would secure congressional approval prior to any strikes.

The move is a bit puzzling considering the president’s extensive use of drone strikes against Al-Qaeda and the limited intervention during Libya’s own civil war and dictatorial overthrow. 

Should Congress refuse to authorize military action against Syria, it would be a blow to the president – given his extensive talk of "red lines" and Secretary of State John Kerry’s passionate words about the atrocities committee by Assad.

But the risks run the length of Pennsylvania Avenue. The calculus to clear the House of Representatives will be complex. Speak of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) may have to violate the “Hastert” rule (only bringing measures to the floor that have the support of the GOP) should he need Democratic votes to move a resolution.

The same strange bedfellows coalition of Republican Proto-Non-Interventionists and Deep Blue Liberals that nearly derailed the NSA’s surveillance program several weeks ago, might very well band together again to try and preempt any strike.

The Senate, with the Rasputin-like Harry Reid at the helm, is more likely to pass a resolution – if only because John McCain has already endorsed the idea and several Democrats up for reelection next year live in red states and may welcome the chance to burnish their hawkish credentials.

The vote is also likely to once again bring into stark relief what it means to be part of the Washington establishment and those who decry the capital and most of what it stands for. House Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) for example, may leave her heart in San Francisco, but her head belongs to Washington.

On a larger scale, the fact Obama, who has had little-to-no success with this Congress, (and rarely agreeing with one another on anything) has decided to ask its permission to proceed with a military operation seems risky. Perhaps, though, a delay is what the White House needs – in order to more fully develop its strategy.

Whatever the ultimate course of action, Congress, the media, and many loud voices from both sides of the aisle will demand a clear-cut set of tactics, timeline, and picture of what success looks like.

But at what costs to him politically and the United States diplomatically? Obama promised to restore our standing in the world but now even our British cousins refuse to stand up and be counted with us.

Should Republicans in the House manage to block any military action they are likely to sacrifice their national security bona fides – one of the last policy stances relatively popular with voters at large. While unlikely to cost them control in next year’s mid-terms, the longer term implications may be felt for years to come.

Syria is another complicated civil war in the world’s most complicated region. Obama added complexity to the mix with his decision to seek congressional approval for military action. Whatever the outcome on Capitol Hill, the Obama's image as a calculated risk-taker is diminished.

While Washington dithers, the rest of the world watches and waits. The Russians sneer, Assad grins, and our allies begin to look sideways at one another. Should Congress fail to give its approval, President Obama will likely go it alone anyway – and if so – what was the point of all this?