The vote on authorization to bomb Syria may have a chance to pass in the Senate, although no whip count at the moment has Barack Obama even in the neighborhood of the 60 votes needed to proceed to a final poll of the upper chamber. Over the last couple of days, though, the momentum has gone the other way in the House, and Obama risks a humiliating and perhaps historic defeat. What happens in that instance? According to a White House source talking with CNBC’s John Harwood, Obama may just ignore the House altogether:
Source close to administration: WH might accept Senate-only approval of Syria strikes. Top WH official says source is "just guessing."
— John Harwood (@JohnJHarwood) September 7, 2013
Legally, Obama might be able to do this. The White House has argued all along that it doesn’t need authorization from Congress to attack Syria, but is only consulting Capitol Hill to make global perception of US resolve that much stronger. Obama offered a similar framing of his request for authorization in his weekly radio address today:
That’s why, last weekend, I announced that, as Commander in Chief, I decided that the United States should take military action against the Syrian regime. This is not a decision I made lightly. Deciding to use military force is the most solemn decision we can make as a nation.
As the leader of the world’s oldest Constitutional democracy, I also know that our country will be stronger if we act together, and our actions will be more effective. That’s why I asked Members of Congress to debate this issue and vote on authorizing the use of force.
If that’s true, he’s failed miserably, and it might get worse. According to The Hill this morning, Harry Reid is having a very big problem holding his own party in line in the one chamber Obama finds indispensable:
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is bracing for double-digit defections in the Democratic caucus on the resolution authorizing military strikes on Syria, which will get a vote this coming week. …
With already four Democratic senators saying they will likely oppose the measure, the pressure is building on Reid to reach out across the aisle.
“If this vote were to fail, it will have huge consequences not only for the president’s domestic policy but also his foreign policy and for the people of Syria. This is about as high stakes as you can get,” Manley added. “How’s Iran and North Korea going to react to a defeat? How are House Republicans going to deal with the debt limit?”
Reid filed the use-of-force resolution on the Senate floor Friday, setting up a Wednesday vote to end debate and move to final passage. The critical cloture vote will happen on the 12-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon and the one-year anniversary of the Benghazi attack.
Well. there’s some brilliant management right there. Reid scheduled a vote on whether we should attack someone fighting al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist networks on 9/11. Want to bet Capitol Hill operators will need extra staffing that day?
If Obama can’t get a Senate controlled by his own party to agree with his new war, that should be game over. If Reid somehow delivers the Senate — and that’s looking less than likely now — we’re still left with the option of ignoring the House and treating the Senate like an advisory council. That’s politically dangerous, as it leaves Obama very isolated in a country that strongly opposes military action, according to Gallup:
Americans’ support for the United States’ taking military action against the Syrian government for its suspected use of chemical weapons is on track to be among the lowest for any intervention Gallup has asked about in the last 20 years. Thirty-six percent of Americans favor the U.S. taking military action in order to reduce Syria’s ability to use chemical weapons. The majority — 51% — oppose such action, while 13% are unsure. …
Among recent past conflicts on which Gallup gauged public opinion prior to U.S. action, support was highest for intervening in Afghanistan and lowest for the 1999 conflict in Kosovo. Americans were divided about U.S. participation in the NATO bombing in Serbia’s Kosovo region about a month before the NATO campaign began. The similarity is noteworthy because some analysts are comparing a potential strike in Syria with that military episode, in terms of scope, duration, and purpose.
The other three military engagements Gallup asked Americans about before they began — in Iraq in 2003, Afghanistan in 2001, and the Persian Gulf in 1991 — were all on a larger scale than what President Barack Obama proposes to do in Syria, and involved sending U.S. troops into foreign countries. All of these proposed military operations received majority support before they began. Notably, all of these conflicts, in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Persian Gulf, were authorized by Congress and/or the United Nations at the time of the polling. Congress is currently debating whether to authorize military force in Syria.
Here are the numbers in comparison:
The difference between these conflicts is the preparation the Commander in Chief put into making the case before it came to war. A year ago, this same administration attacked its opponent in the election for wanting war with Syria, for instance, in what turned out to be a bad case of projection — and did so just a couple of weeks after Obama set the “red line” for action. Obama has done nothing since to build a case for intervention, not at home and not abroad, either. The above chart is what a dilettante President gets.
Now Obama is isolated at home, and abroad. Only France has agreed to join the US on military action, but that might not last long, either:
More than two-thirds of French people are against the country taking part in international military action in Syria, according to a newspaper poll published Saturday.
The survey for French daily Le Figaro showed the country’s opposition to military action against the Damascus regime has increased markedly since the end of August.
Asked whether they would be in favour of French participation — which President Francois Hollande strongly supports — 68 percent of respondents said no.
That was an increase of nine percentage points on a survey published on August 29.
Obama may find himself entirely isolated in launching his new war. Bypassing the House on military action now would produce the opposite of what Obama intended when asking for the authorization in the first place, and it would destroy whatever political capital he has left here and on the global stage. Perhaps he should start thinking about the fact of his isolation and realize he’s alone on that limb for some very good reasons.