Top House Dem: If Congress opposes Syria intervention, Obama must stand down

The whole clip’s worth watching but skip to the last minute or so to see see Chris Van Hollen, former chair of the DCCC and current ranking member of the Budget Committee, lay down his own little red line for O. Remember, according to the White House, the big vote in Congress isn’t necessarily binding on Obama. If the House torpedoes a Syria AUMF, the Supreme Leader may decide for the good of the country and the world to proceed with an attack on Assad anyway. How he plans to sell that to an already skeptical public, I have no idea. The normal M.O. for presidents who want to attack and don’t want to be bothered by congressional approval is to go ahead and do it and then seek retroactive authorization under the War Powers Resolution. It is, as the saying goes, easier to seek forgiveness than permission. The only reason he’d go to Congress first, I assume, is because he does plan to abide by their decision. If they greenlight the attack, great — they’re on the hook with him for whatever happens after that. If they redlight it, great — then he can back off from his stupid “red line” pronouncements and blame Congress for any new WMD insanity that happens in Syria. This is, then, mostly empty rhetoric by Van Hollen, designed to make it sound like Congress is asserting its prerogatives even though O’s using them as a political hedge.

But there’s a tiny bit more to it than that.

Right. The big worry for Pelosi, Van Hollen, and the rest of the Democratic leadership is that some Dems will vote no on the assumption that O will ignore whatever happens in Congress and attack Syria anyway. It’s a costless vote in theory: Appease the anti-war elements in the lefty base by opposing the AUMF and then trust Obama to play the heroic C-in-C by bombing the monster Assad anyway. Hard to believe any professional pol could be so stupid as not to see political trouble for O looming by forcing him to ignore the will of Congress in intervening in Syria, but here’s Van Hollen trying to signal to his caucus that, yes indeed, dropping bombs after the legislature has voted against it would put Obama in, shall we say, a bit of a spot. A vote against an attack is a vote against Obama. That’s the Democratic message, and that’s how they keep their caucus in line. When in doubt on a difficult matter of foreign policy, stick with mindless partisan loyalty.

That also explains why Van Hollen’s taking the lead on writing a narrow AUMF that would grant Obama power to conduct only very limited strikes — again, in theory. In return for liberals sparing The One from a searing humiliation by his own party, House Democrats are going to try to make the vote more salable to doves by circumscribing the president’s power. (Van Hollen told Greg Sargent explicitly that the closer Obama veers towards McCain/Graham super-hawkishness, the more Democrats he’ll lose.) But as I say, watch the clip below. Van Hollen explicitly leaves open the possibility of more strikes later if Assad uses chemical weapons again. And why wouldn’t he? He knows how difficult a predicament Obama’s been placed in here; if he was willing to dare him to enforce the red line once, a few cruise missiles and airstrikes shouldn’t deter him from trying again. And even if Assad’s personally deterred, Iran and Hezbollah might not be: They care about projecting Shiite power, not about Assad’s individual fate. They could launch their own chemical weapons attacks in Syria to humiliate the U.S., not caring particularly how the White House responds against the Syrian military. There’s no such thing as a truly narrow AUMF. But then, if you’ve been paying attention to Afghanistan for the past 12 years, you already know that.

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