Reading Washington: What is Obama up to?

If Congress rejects military action, he retains the high ground of having intended to help. If Congress approves, he will have demonstrated moral and political leadership

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

US President Barack Obama meets with senior advisers in the Oval Office to discuss a new plan for the situation in Syria, August 30, 2013. (Pete Souza/Official White House Photo)
US President Barack Obama meets with senior advisers in the Oval Office to discuss a new plan for the situation in Syria, August 30, 2013. (Pete Souza/Official White House Photo)

Other than clarifying that Congress would vote on US military involvement in Syria, US President Barack Obama’s last-minute announcement Saturday left viewers and pundits alike with more questions than answers.

1. Will Obama win congressional support?

If national sentiment is any indication of congressional voting — a fact which the historically low congressional approval ratings calls into question — the answer is uncertain. The most recent poll of Americans on the subject indicated that support for military intervention in Syria stood at 50 percent.

The president’s announcement Saturday disabled not one, but two of the most critical GOP justifications for opposing military intervention.

The Republicans in both the House and Senate are painfully divided into foreign policy camps that could be roughly described as interventionists, isolationists and fiscal skeptics. In recent days, the GOP leadership had managed to rally all of those camps behind a critique of Obama’s Syria policy based on the fact that the president had not consulted Congress.

The impact of the argument was particularly damaging, given that it channeled the left-wing’s critique of the interventionist policies of Obama’s Republican predecessor, George W. Bush. It allowed the Republicans to circle their own wagons, but also to bring in Democrats in a campaign that opposed military action on the grounds that airstrikes without the approval of Congress were unconstitutional. The fact that the vote will occur at all limits the scale of the coalition that would potentially oppose intervention.

Obama also turned a neat trick, early observers pointed out, when he described action against Syria as both a security and a moral imperative. Such justifications put liberal and conservative interventionists in both parties on the spot — key members of the Republican Old Guard like Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) will find it hard to oppose action justified on those grounds.

Earlier this week, McCain responded to UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s epic parliamentary defeat in a similar vote by saying that he felt “badly about the British,” explaining that “they are our dear friends but they are no longer a world power.” Would McCain be willing to commit to a vote that would have the same implications for the United States?

Liberals are more challenged by the nature of the alleged chemical attack itself — the images of rows of dead children lend themselves to the question that stands at the heart of the tension among liberals. In the face of an act of mass slaughter that obviously targeted civilians, the classic Holocaust parallel arises – aided, of course, by Secretary of State John Kerry’s comments Friday in which he cited the common catchphrase “never again.”

Liberals already find themselves torn between a moral reluctance to military intervention and a moral disgust at the idea of standing by and watching the slaughter of innocents.

Obama’s decision to put the vote to Congress virtually ensures victory — for the president, at least. If Congress rejects military action, he retains the moral high ground of intending to help, and of agreeing to legislative oversight, without facing the critique for the outcome of intervention. If Congress approves, he will have demonstrated moral and political leadership, and may even create an environment of improved Hill-White House relationships in the weeks before the looming budget and debt ceiling debates.

2. When will Congress vote?

If the Republican leadership put the nail in the coffin of an early vote, it is unclear if the delay will benefit or harm the president’s case. But that, of course, depends on what the president’s real agenda is.

Obama emphasized in his address that Congress would hold a debate and vote on military action in Syria immediately after the legislature reconvenes. The scheduled date for the Congressional session to begin is September 9, a date that critics have already noted gives Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime an additional 10 days to hunker down before airstrikes.

In the first minutes after Obama’s speech, it sounded as if the Democrat-led Senate was considering reconvening before the scheduled start date. But shortly after Obama finished, the entire House Republican leadership issued a joint statement in which they said that “we expect the House to consider a measure the week of September 9th.” The delay, they said, “provides the president time to make his case to Congress and the American people.”

3. What is Obama’s real agenda on Syria?

Obama is, of course, a Nobel laureate. His prize is one of the most-maligned Nobel Peace Prizes — when he received it, it was derided as a “speculative” prize for future action. The action, incidentally, was nuclear disarmament, which hit rocky shores when the US-Russia relationship began taking on water. High on Obama’s agenda, moral or pragmatic, is to shore up America’s — and his own — role in the world.

To that end, his key concern for both domestic and international audiences is to not make a mistake. He must tread a difficult line between appearing too overly aggressive à la George W. Bush, but also not alienating more people in the Middle East by making it seem as though the US was willing to stand by while civilians were slaughtered. Obama’s overall approval rating is at its lowest ever — 44 percent — and his foreign policy approval rating is now lower than his domestic policy approval rating.

His approval rating on how he has handled the issue of intervention in Syria is even worse – a grim 35 percent, according to the same NBC poll released Friday. Part of his real agenda must be to change that — but in what direction, given the 50% approval/disapproval rate for military intervention?

What he means to do depends largely on how his advisers have “read” his chances of getting the vote on intervention through both houses of Congress. If his advisers believe that the partisan politics of the capital city will take over, and the GOP will reject involvement, it could be that he is banking on the Republicans taking the fall for blocking an attack that he doesn’t want to carry out in the first place.

If, however, advisers see Congress as likely to pass the resolution, it means that Obama genuinely wants military involvement to take place and will also gain bonus points along the way for deferring to Congress — even if it is widely believed that Congressional approval is not required for such an intervention.

Obama has refused to answer questions about whether he will continue with plans for intervention if his resolution fails on the Hill, leaving a final note of ambiguity in an already hard-to-read political situation.

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