Obama risks embarrassing loss in Congress

McClatchy Washington BureauAugust 31, 2013 

— President Barack Obama is taking a risk by asking Congress to approve airstrikes against Syria.

The potential payoff is that he’ll win the kind of vote that signals broad popular support, giving him a stronger hand in facing Syrian President Bashar Assad and perhaps other dictators later in such regimes as Iran.

But there are military and political risks in the process.

Militarily, a desperate Assad could use the time while Obama waits for a Congressional debate to launch another chemical weapon attack, either in his own country or elsewhere in the Middle East, turning a civil war into a regional conflict.

Politically, Obama could emerge as a weakened leader, finding it even more difficult to push his proposals through Congress, including his top priorities of passing a budget and rewriting the nation’s immigration laws.

“Ultimately, I think he felt he was going to be a target from both the left and the right if he did it alone, and with few significant allies overseas, I don’t think he wanted to be isolated,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion at Marist College in New York. “This puts the ball in Congress’s court and they either join and he gets policy and political cover or they oppose.”

Just days ago, British Prime Minister David Cameron suffered a stunning defeat when Parliament rejected participating in any attack on Syria. Obama believes Congress will approve the resolution, though the White House has not counted votes, according to senior administration officials speaking on the condition of anonymity as a matter of White House policy.

But, the officials also said Obama does not rule out acting on his own if lawmakers fail to act. If that happened, he would only further antagonize a divided Congress that already rejects many of his proposals.

The move to seek congressional approval is unusual for Obama, a president who has grown more comfortable bypassing Congress with executive actions on both foreign and domestic issues.

He delayed the deportation of young illegal immigrants when Congress wouldn’t agree. He ordered the federal government to research gun violence, which Congress had halted. He told the Justice Department to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act, deciding that the 1996 law defining marriage as between a man and a woman was unconstitutional. And in 2011, Obama received a slew of criticism for intervening in Libya without congressional approval. The House later rejected a resolution to support the mission, though the Senate passed it.

Obama knew last week that he needed to act in Syria. But it wasn’t until late Friday, officials said, that he decided to seek congressional approval -- something none of his aides had pushed. He felt that he should hold Congress accountable for the decision after more than 100 lawmakers sent a letter telling Obama he needed to seek authorization, they said. The officials said Obama didn’t want to hide from the debate.

John Geer, a co-director of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Vanderbilt University, said Obama could open himself up to criticism for bowing to Congress, but the flip side would be accusations “that he was hasty and not deliberative.”

“There are three branches of government and Congress does have a say,” Geer said. “He’s not doing something unprecedented.”

Foreign policy experts questioned the wisdom of waiting at least another week for Congress to return before the U.S. could act.

Michael Singh, a former director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush who’s now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a research center, said there could be repercussions

“You risk losing the momentum toward an effective military operation with a decision to go to Congress,” he said, adding it also gives opponents like Russia and Iran more time to protest, and for the Syrians to mount a counter offensive and make certain their air forces are better protected.

“Anytime you lose the element of surprise you’re reducing the efficacy of your military strike,” he added.

Administration officials downplayed any risk at the military level, saying they believed Obama’s strong words alone would prevent Assad or his allies from striking before the U.S. make a decision. One official simply called any future attack by Assad a “big mistake.”

If Congress does approve the authorization, Obama could emerge stronger than before.

Anthony H. Cordesman, a military analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said a successful military operation could boost Obama’s domestic agenda.

“It will be harder on the budget issues to come up against a president who is strong and successful,” he said. “A president who is strong and failed is a different story, and the president considers that.”

Email: akumar@mcclatchydc.com, lclark@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @anitakumar01, @lesleyclark

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