Shadow Government

Obama’s Desperate Gambit

This is a move borne out of weakness. Going to Congress could have been a sign of strength if it had been done last week, before all of the signaling from the White House of an imminent attack. But aides are not even trying to spin this as a sign of presidential resolve. Instead, their ...

Kristoffer Tripplaar-Pool/Getty Images
Kristoffer Tripplaar-Pool/Getty Images

This is a move borne out of weakness.

Going to Congress could have been a sign of strength if it had been done last week, before all of the signaling from the White House of an imminent attack. But aides are not even trying to spin this as a sign of presidential resolve. Instead, their own backgrounders describe it as borne partly out of political weakness, as the president stumbled on his march to war over the past week, and partly out of political pique at congressional critics. As an aide put it, "We don’t want them [Members of Congress] to have their cake and eat it, too."

Given the predicament the administration’s own rhetoric put Obama in, the congressional authorization gambit may be the most tactically shrewd move left to the president. But it could still backfire in ways that hurt both Obama and the country.

It might be tactically shrewd if Obama wins a decisive vote of confidence, say, something that eclipses the strong bipartisan majority that endorsed President George W. Bush’s confrontation with Iraq (77-23 votes in the Senate, 296-133 votes in the House). That vote did provide political momentum for the Iraq war and did implicate Democrats in the Iraq policy. Let us not forget that that vote is why we have a President Obama and did not have a President Kerry, nor a President Biden, nor a President Hillary Clinton.

But I doubt that Obama will get such a strong political victory. His team has a very poor track record of building bipartisan coalitions on foreign policy and the last two weeks of policy incoherence have not given them any momentum. Moreover, Obama will likely struggle to hold his left wing base, while isolationist sentiments will dampen Republican support. Does Obama have the votes to override, say, a Senator Paul filibuster? Can Obama whip enough of the far left Democrats to compensate for lost votes on the right? And look for all those nay-voters to use talking points drafted from President Obama’s and his advisor’s own statements over the past two years defending their hitherto policy of staying out of Syria.

On the other hand, it might be tactically shrewd if, having crashed into the Syrian iceberg, the president wants simply to take down some Republicans with him as his policy Titanic sinks below the waves. If the Republicans vote down the Syrian bill Obama can forgo the strikes (the preference he signals, wittingly or not, almost every time he speaks on the issue) and blame Republicans for it. Judging from what the leaky White House was saying about the president’s abrupt reversal, this might be the core objective right now.

Yet none of these tactical gains will overcome the president’s biggest problem: he has no viable strategy for Syria or for the larger region.

And therein lies the biggest risk in going belatedly to Congress: the debate will necessarily expose this inconvenient truth. Punishing or not punishing Syria for crossing the chemical weapons red line is not a strategy. At best, it is only part of a strategy, and in this case President Obama has not articulated a viable larger strategy.

It will be impossible to conduct this congressional debate without addressing what the president intends to do about the turmoil in the region, and how these strikes serve that larger strategy. Right now, the administration cannot answer those questions. Over the next couple weeks, they will scramble to supply one.

The only optimistic outcome I can think of is that the debate manages to not only expose the strategic deficit, but also prods the administration finally to confront it and overcome it with a new, coherent and sufficiently resourced approach to the region. In this rosiest of scenarios, the necessity to work across the aisle in pursuit of congressional authorization might even be the wake-up call the administration has hitherto resisted.  

But I am not optimistic this rosy scenario will arise. It seems more likely that the congressional chapter of the Syrian saga will result in any of several bad outcomes:

* a razor thin vote of approval that hardens political divisions in the country and exposes but does not fix Obama’s strategy deficit, obligating the administration to go forward with minimal political support.

* a negative vote that Obama "honors" thus yielding all of the negative consequences the president himself said inaction in the face of chemical use would engender.  

* a negative vote that Obama defies — a defiance that is almost without precedent (and the only precedents I can think of are bad, very bad: Iran-Contra).

And yet, even after all of those bad outcomes, the president will still have to struggle through many more chapters of the saga, confronting all of the regional problems that will remain without a strategy commensurate with the task and even weaker politically than he was just a few short weeks ago.

This last prospect is one that should please no one who cares about the national  interest.  Obama is in perilous waters, but he has taken us in the ship of state with him there.  We all should hope that he gets us out of this more deftly than he got us in.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University.  He is the director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and of the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy.

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