Obama Punts to Congress on Syria—and Scores

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

President Obama just might pull off his proposed Syria attack. And a limited strike to punish Assad, take out much of his air force, and deter future chemical attacks just might be the least bad of the available options, none of which are good. The strategy might also be astute domestic politics, since it exposes the opportunistic fault lines in the Republican Party and could cast the president as a strong leader for once.

One intriguing question that follows from the Syria politicking is why Obama occasionally seems so effective at foreign policy and the attendant domestic politics, and then appears so consistently feckless and disappointing when it comes to domestic policy and politics writ large. More on that in a moment.

Six days ago, Obama looked like he’d wimped out again. He had overruled most of his staff, who were counseling a quick strike based on his commander-in-chief authority. Instead, Obama, a reluctant warrior, punted to Congress. The surprise move sent mixed signals, made him look irresolute domestically and internationally, and appeared to set him up as a sitting duck for Republicans to block his proposed policy. It almost seemed as if Obama wanted Congress to overrule him.

Now, however, the move is beginning to look like a master-stroke.

Obama and his team made the most serious lobbying and information-sharing effort since the full-court press for the Affordable Care Act, and he seems to have won over just enough Republicans. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has approved his request, 10-7, with only minor tinkering and a crossing of party lines.

The House Republican leadership, amazingly, supports the president, though it remains to be seen if they can deliver a majority of the House GOP caucus. There is a lot of opposition among progressive Democrats, but Leader Nancy Pelosi is creating a fig leaf that could win over enough of the president’s own party.

By my count, Congress at this point is split seven ways. There are Republicans like John McCain who want a more aggressive military policy of regime change; Republicans like Rand Paul who are principled isolationists, and entirely opportunist Republicans who simply will do anything to cause Obama to fail. Then there are Republicans like House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who have been won over to the Obama position either on the merits or thanks to the relentless lobbying of the never-to-be-underestimated Israel lobby.

On the Democratic side, there are progressives who are opposed to the United States backing into another war in the Middle East, a few supporters of the Colin Powell doctrine who think we should go in (if at all) only to oust Assad, and then there are those who support the president.

This fragmentation produces an opportunity for presidential leadership, if Obama can muster the votes. The Republicans who oppose any U.S. military action are of course playing against type. If this were President George W. Bush asking authority for what is in fact a very limited intervention, he would get nearly unanimous GOP backing in a heartbeat. Having seen the evidence, several have now shifted to support the president, even though he is a Democrat named Obama.

But what of the policy itself? There are several things to commend it. When my generation opposed the Vietnam War and lobbied Congress to pass the War Powers Act, this kind of Constitutional process was just what we had in mind. A president admits that he can’t make war without congressional authorization, he goes before Congress, lays out the facts and makes his case.

Whatever you think of the policy, these facts, unlike the “facts” that Bush used to get win authorization for his Iraq War, are not lies. It’s hard to fault Obama on the process, either as tactical politics or as respect for the law and the Constitution.

As for the military plan, there are no good options, and a limited, punitive strike with congressional authorization is probably the least bad. Letting Assad use poison gas on his own people does cross a red line, and doing nothing would invite more of the same, from Assad and others. A full-blown war would be insane.

If Obama wins congressional approval, and the U.S. makes a limited, punitive strike, the president gains stature at home and abroad, and Assad is weakened. Stronger opposition from Assad from the international community will likely be forthcoming.

At the very least, he will be unlikely to use gas again. The rebels are still a totally unattractive alternative, but that will be the case no matter what the U.S. does. And, for once, the president tames the Republicans.

So why is Obama more of a leader on foreign policy?

First, I think, foreign affairs is where Obama is more of a genuine progressive. He came to prominence as an opponent of the Iraq war. Second, foreign policy is where a president holds more of the cards, and it is harder for Congress to resist.

Third, to the extent that the idea of bridging differences is deep in this president’s DNA, it is actually possible to pursue bipartisanship in foreign policy, where cross-aisle relationships (Kerry-McCain-Hagel) still exist and where Congress doesn’t have the capacity to make its own foreign and military policy. Obama’s dream, of being a president who forges consensus, is occasionally possible in foreign affairs. His latent leadership skills get a stage on which to successfully play.

This doesn’t quite explain why he has been such a feeble leader as a domestic progressive, a subject about which I have written about to the point of obsession. The short answer is that it’s much easier for Republicans to block on domestic issues, Obama doesn’t have the necessary taste for demonizing the Republican opposition (which richly deserves to be demonized for its extremism and obstructionism) and he isn’t that much of a domestic progressive.

But that’s a topic for another day. For today, Hail to the Chief.

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