President Barack Obama has taken a huge political gamble at home and abroad by asking Congress to sign off on his plans to use air power to punish Syrian leader Basher Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons.
On top of that, Obama already has appeared less than sure-footed in his handling of the Syria crisis. First, Obama declared in 2011 that Assad had to be removed from power and said last year that the use of chemical weapons would cross a red line requiring an American response.
Then, convinced that Assad used those weapons on August 21, Obama decided to act, said a military strike was necessary and indicated it was just a matter of when, not if. But last weekend, shortly after announcing plans to take military action, Obama suddenly and unexpectedly addressed the nation, saying he was still prepared to strike but putting off the start of hostilities to allow Congress to vote on his plans.
Stripped bare, Obama's attempt to share responsibility for a U.S. bombing and cruise missile campaign with the legislative branch, has one of three possible outcomes:
1. Congress votes to support an attack, backs the president's decision to bomb, even as a big majority of Americans, polls show, steadfastly opposes a military strike. The United States' experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has curbed the public's appetite for foreign military adventures. An attack with the blessing of Congress would leave two branches of government acting in direct opposition to the will of the people who voted the president and lawmakers into office.
2. Congress rejects Obama's plan to attack, but he orders the military into action regardless. In that case, Obama would have handed opposition lawmakers still another tool with which to attack him. That likely would only deepen the partisan split that already grips the government, making it even more difficult for Obama to emerge victorious in upcoming high stakes economic battles, where conservatives are threatening to cause the nation to default on its debts or to shut down the government for lack of agreement on the budget, which expires at the end of the month. The opposition right wing is demanding big cuts in the president's health care overhaul.
3. Congress fails to approve a strike on Syria and Obama decides not to attack. In that case, the president would look powerless, and, he would lose credibility as leader of the world's only superpower.
"If the president does not act, with or without authorization, what remains of his credibility and American believability — however imperfect the options — is going to be fundamentally undermined," said Aaron David Miller, vice president of the Wilson Center and a key adviser to Republican and Democratic secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli negotiations.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter and scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Obama's turn to Congress "was not necessary. It was pregnant with possible complications."
So far in Congress, the foreign relations committee in the Democratic-controlled Senate has voted to back Obama, but on a 10-7 split decision. The authorization, if it passes in the full Senate next week, would give Obama 60 days with a possible 30-day extension for the bombing campaign, and prohibits the introduction of American troops. In a bow to Republican Sen. John McCain, the authorization to use force also contains language that calls for altering the momentum in the Syrian civil war, in which the Assad regime has the upper hand.
In the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, the majority has historically voted as a bloc against any Obama initiative. But this time there is a big split between the party's tea party faction, whose members continue to oppose military action, and more moderate members — the likes of Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who have declared they will back a strike on Syria. Democrats in both houses are split, which is probably the biggest hurdle for winning congressional backing. Even some of Obama's closest allies are saying they won't back military action.
Obama, meantime, has used his time at the G-20 economic summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, to try to win international backing for military action. Russian leader Vladimir Putin has blocked the United Nations from taking up any resolution on Syria, a long-time Moscow ally. In Britain, the parliament voted down a move by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron that would have made British resources available to Obama. That was a stunning reversal in a country that was Washington's closest ally in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Only the French have come out in full support of a U.S. air campaign.
In St. Petersburg, Obama's first meeting was with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Afterward Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said the two leaders agreed "the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable and demands a strong international response. They agreed to stay in close coordination on the issue as we move forward." In remarks before the meeting, Abe avoided giving an assessment of Obama's plans to attack Syria, and Rhodes said nothing to suggest he was a backer of military strikes.
Back at home, the White House announced it had canceled an upcoming presidential trip to California so Obama can work on winning support in Congress when he returns from Russia. And the president seemed to telegraph a readiness to act with or without Congress during a stop in Sweden on his way to St. Petersburg.
"As Commander-in-Chief, I always preserve the right and the responsibility to act on behalf of America's national security," he said. "I do not believe that I was required to take this to Congress. But I did not take this to Congress just because it's an empty exercise; I think it's important to have Congress's support on it."
Brzezinski thinks at this point, Obama has no option but to attack, but "it has to be calculated in such a way that it makes it very clear that it will not be profitable for him (Assad) to use again chemical weapons. But not anything far beyond that." He said he hopes the Syrian conflict can be steered back into a stalemate that would allow a greater diplomatic effort time to work.