As we begin the congressional debate on whether to launch some kind of strike on Syria, one of the main questions animating the political discussion is, what happens if Obama loses? People are saying some predictably stupid things about it, talking about how wounded Obama's presidency would be, and how he'd no longer be able to get Congress to do his bidding, unlike the last few years, when he got whatever he wanted from Congress. But here's a question: What if a resolution on the use of force in Syria passes the Senate, but fails to pass the House?
Right now that looks like a distinct possibility. People doing whip counts based on what members have publicly said (see here or here) are saying that in the House, a majority of members have either come out against military action or say they're leaning that way. In the Senate things are less clear; most senators haven't said how they'll vote. Of course that could change, but if it doesn't, what happens then?
It isn't clear. The administration has said repeatedly that it believes it has the legal authority to carry out a strike without Congress' permission. But doing it without asking, as Obama did in Libya, is one thing; asking for authorization and being denied, then doing it anyway, is something different. If Obama got a positive vote in Senate, I suppose that would enable him to argue that he got at least some assent from the people's representatives, and that's enough. But I'm pretty sure that if he went ahead without getting the support of both houses, the Republican Clown Caucus
1 1. Speaking of which, the three most knuckleheaded members of the People's House—Michele Bachmann, Louie Gohmert, and Steve King—are now in Egypt where they've gone to lend their voices in support of the military coup. Doesn't it make you proud to know that those three nincompoops are representing America abroad? would start beating the drums for impeachment, and then we'd have to deal with that for who knows how long.
We should never forget that the political headaches the situation produces have no bearing on whether a military strike is the right thing to do or not. And it may be that given the no-win nature of the Syrian situation, there was never going to be any way to convince the public and members of Congress to go along with military action. But there's an inherent contradiction in the arguments the administration and its (temporary) allies are making. They're trying to simultaneously argue that a strike on Syria is incredibly vital and the whole situation has far-reaching consequences, and it's no big deal and we don't have to worry much about far-reaching consequences.
Some try to raise the stakes by saying that Americans' security is at risk, because if we don't strike Syria, then Iran will be emboldened to develop its nuclear weapons. (Here's a tip: any time you hear about someone dangerous being "emboldened," chances are the person making the argument is grasping at straws.) Or they say that Assad could give chemical weapons to terrorist groups, which is not only exactly what the Bush administration said about Saddam Hussein, but is just nonsensical. Are we supposed to believe that if we strike some of his facilities, Assad won't give chemical weapons to terrorists, but if we don't strike him, he will give chemical weapons to terrorists? Why?
But at the same time, the administration is trying to allay fears that this could become another Iraq or Afghanistan by constantly playing down the magnitude of the strikes. John Kerry is now getting flack for describing the coming strikes as "unbelievably small." This was an off-the-cuff remark that he'd obviously like to take back, but it was just an unfortunately exaggerated version of what the administration has been saying all along. It's going to be limited in duration and scope! It's hard to convince people that only a minimal effort is required at the same time you're trying to convince them that this is so very critical.