The Fun-House Mirror That Is the Syria Decision

The upcoming congressional vote has turned politics on its head, leaving Democrats and Republicans unclear about what’s going to happen next.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., left, accompanied by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., speaks with reporters outside the White House in Washington, Monday, Sept. 2, 2013, following a closed-door meeting with President Barack Obama to discuss the situation with Syria. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
National Journal
Beth Reinhard
Sept. 5, 2013, 4:04 a.m.

Alan Lowenth­al has a head­ache.

Who can blame him? The fresh­man House mem­ber, a Cali­for­nia Demo­crat, is genu­inely torn — torn up, really — over wheth­er to vote for mil­it­ary strikes against Syr­ia. After a clas­si­fied brief­ing Wed­nes­day in the House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee, he was head­ing back to Long Beach, no closer to a de­cision than be­fore.

“This is a very pained dis­cus­sion,” he said. “There are no good an­swers, and there are very grave con­sequences no mat­ter what we do. There’s a mor­al di­lemma about the use of chem­ic­al weapons — which are just ter­rible — by a dic­tat­or. On the oth­er hand, there are con­sequences that we’ve seen when we in­volve ourselves, es­pe­cially uni­lat­er­ally, and we could put ourselves tre­mend­ously at risk.”

Per­haps the most un­en­vi­able job in the world these days is to be a mem­ber of the Con­gress wrest­ling with what to do about the crisis in Syr­ia. There are fierce, com­pet­ing pres­sures swirl­ing around these fence-sit­ters, de­pend­ing on their rank, party af­fil­i­ation, con­stitu­ents’ de­mands, for­eign policy ori­ent­a­tion, and, yes, even their reelec­tion pro­spects or am­bi­tions for high­er of­fice. House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi has called it a “vote of con­science,” sug­gest­ing that polit­ics won’t come in­to play, but every­one knows that’s im­possible in such a highly po­lar­ized en­vir­on­ment and with midterms a little over a year away.

Lib­er­al Demo­crats such as Lowenth­al have a nat­ur­al res­ist­ance to war, but they also want to back up one of their own in the White House. Then there are the polls show­ing that a ma­jor­ity of voters op­pose mil­it­ary ac­tion. Of the 653 e-mails, phone calls, and so­cial-me­dia com­ments Lowenth­al’s of­fice has re­ceived, only 11 fa­vor strikes.

Also weigh­ing on him and oth­er mem­bers is Is­rael’s se­cur­ity. As a Jew, Lowenth­al said, he’s par­tic­u­larly sens­it­ive to the hor­rif­ic im­ages of in­no­cent people be­ing gassed. But does bomb­ing Syr­ia in­crease or de­crease the threat that its ally, Ir­an, poses to Is­rael? Lowenth­al isn’t sure.

Re­pub­lic­ans feel a dif­fer­ent set of pres­sures. Some view the pres­id­ent’s de­cision to ask Con­gress for au­thor­ity as a trap, lay­ing the ground­work for shar­ing the blame. “A lot of people in Con­gress wish he had not bucked it to them,” said Re­pub­lic­an lob­by­ist Charlie Black. Sid­ing with a Demo­crat­ic pres­id­ent could be a ma­jor li­ab­il­ity for Re­pub­lic­an mem­bers fa­cing primary chal­lengers next year or con­tem­plat­ing their party’s White House nom­in­a­tion in 2016. “There’s al­most a re­flex­ive im­pulse among Re­pub­lic­ans to op­pose any­thing Obama is for,” said Mike Mc­Curry, who was a State De­part­ment spokes­man and a press sec­ret­ary for Pres­id­ent Clin­ton. Among the po­ten­tial GOP pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates, Sens. Rand Paul of Ken­tucky and Ted Cruz of Texas have de­nounced Obama’s plan; Sen. Marco Ru­bio of Flor­ida voted against mil­it­ary force as a mem­ber of the For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee on Wed­nes­day.

Such votes could emerge as key cam­paign is­sues three years from now. Just ask former Sen. Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton of New York, who voted with dozens of oth­er Demo­crats to go to war in Ir­aq in 2002. What seemed like a safe vote at the time, amid a cer­tain amount of post-9/11 pat­ri­ot­ic fer­vor, turned tox­ic in the Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial primary six years later.

Clin­ton, who went on to be­come Obama’s sec­ret­ary of State, came out in sup­port of mil­it­ary ac­tion in Syr­ia this week.

But there was no cloak­ing this move in 9/11 unity. “Be­fore the next pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, we’ll know which side was right on Syr­ia and which side was wrong,” said Re­pub­lic­an con­sult­ant Steve Schmidt, who ad­vised 2008 nom­in­ee John Mc­Cain.

In a sign that some Re­pub­lic­ans are put­ting their feel­ings about the White House aside, House Speak­er John Boehner and House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor are back­ing Obama’s call for mil­it­ary ac­tion. That Boehner, Can­tor, Pelosi, and Obama are on one side, and Paul, Ru­bio, and Cruz are on the oth­er — along with lib­er­al Demo­crats such as Reps. Charlie Ran­gel of New York and Alan Grayson of Flor­ida — makes it starkly clear that this is no party-line vote. The old rules, un­der which Demo­crats res­ist mil­it­ary en­tan­gle­ments and Re­pub­lic­ans cham­pi­on for­eign in­ter­ven­tion, no longer ap­ply. That leaves mem­bers even more isol­ated and con­fused.

Lowenth­al could nev­er have con­tem­plated that the Demo­crat­ic pres­id­ent who won elec­tion op­pos­ing the war in Ir­aq would urge him to green-light a mis­sile strike in an­oth­er part of the Middle East. Nor could Rep. Cory Gard­ner, R-Colo., have en­vi­sioned the split in his party over for­eign in­ter­ven­tion.

“Of course it mat­ters what the speak­er of the House says, but it also mat­ters what most of the mem­bers of my com­munity say, and my con­stitu­ents from left to right op­pose in­volve­ment,” Gard­ner said. “In the end, I will vote ac­cord­ing to what I be­lieve is right.”

Gard­ner in­sists the vote “tran­scends polit­ics.” With the lives of wo­men and men in uni­form at stake, this isn’t like vot­ing on the farm bill or the debt ceil­ing. “This vote is in a cat­egory by it­self,” he said. “You can’t com­pare it to any oth­er vote.”

The com­plex­it­ies of the crisis in Syr­ia make it dif­fi­cult to cal­cu­late polit­ic­al ad­vant­age. So a de­bate laced with polit­ics, in some re­spects, is some­how lib­er­ated from polit­ics. That makes the up­com­ing vote all the more un­pre­dict­able. Even the large ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans wear­ily fed up with the dys­func­tion in Con­gress will be watch­ing closely. No one has the lux­ury of turn­ing away.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4421) }}

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