Obama Takes Riverboat Gamble on Syria

Obama speaks about the economy on July 11, 2011.
National Journal
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Norm Ornstein
Sept. 4, 2013, 3:30 p.m.

I had a ro­bust list of top­ics I was go­ing to write about after Labor Day, but how can one write this week about any­thing oth­er than Pres­id­ent Obama’s sur­pris­ing (to say the least) an­nounce­ment that he would sub­mit to Con­gress a res­ol­u­tion to au­thor­ize the use of force in Syr­ia? I be­lieve Obama was right that he did not have to go to Con­gress; for an at­tack of the sort he has con­tem­plated, there is ample and ro­bust pre­ced­ent for the chief ex­ec­ut­ive to act. And as the bril­liant con­sti­tu­tion­al schol­ar Philip Bob­bitt wrote in For­eign Policy, the Found­ing Fath­ers did not ex­pect Con­gress’s au­thor­ity to de­clare war to pre­clude a pres­id­ent from act­ing mil­it­ar­ily; it “was nev­er con­sidered a pre­con­di­tion for en­ter­ing hos­til­it­ies but rather, as the Su­preme Court ob­served in 1800 in Bas v. Tingy, a mat­ter of ‘per­fect­ing’ an oth­er­wise lim­ited war.”¦ “

So why go to Con­gress? For a com­bin­a­tion of reas­ons. First, it is the right thing to do, in the spir­it if not the let­ter of the Con­sti­tu­tion and the law, and it ap­pre­ci­ates the strong views of so many mem­bers of Con­gress, in­clud­ing a slew of Demo­crats. Second, it forces Con­gress to move past second-guess­ing and carp­ing and step up to the plate, tak­ing re­spons­ib­il­ity and shar­ing in the con­sequences. Third, it cre­ates a much more fo­cused and well-covered de­bate over the next two weeks, which could al­ter pub­lic opin­ion, now strongly tilted against any mil­it­ary ac­tion. And fourth, an ac­tion taken after a con­gres­sion­al im­prim­at­ur car­ries more weight in­ter­na­tion­ally.

But the de­cision is still a ri­ver­boat gamble that enough mem­bers of Con­gress will, after a ro­bust de­bate, un­der­stand that even if they are deeply re­luct­ant to ap­prove of a strike, the cost of dis­ap­prov­al would be too great. Ri­ver­boat gambles can pay off, of course. But there is a reas­on for the phrase “ri­ver­boat gamble,” used by Howard Baker to de­scribe the Re­agan budget and tax cuts. It is a big risk.

The nature of the risk was in some ways evid­ent in the hear­ing Tues­day in the Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee, where the tough ques­tions and most tense dia­logue between sen­at­ors and Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry came from Tom Ud­all, D-N.M., and Rand Paul, R-Ky. — on any oth­er is­sue, a most un­likely duo. To be sure, plenty of strong lib­er­als, in­clud­ing Bar­bara Box­er, D-Cal­if., made clear that they sup­port mil­it­ary ac­tion against Bashar al-As­sad’s re­gime. And it is most un­likely that the pres­id­ent will fail to get a ma­jor­ity, and prob­ably a su­per­ma­jor­ity, in the Sen­ate for a fo­cused and stripped-down res­ol­u­tion writ­ten by Robert Men­en­dez, D-N.J., and Bob Cork­er, R-Tenn., (al­though I am in­tensely in­ter­ested to see what Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell, R-Ky., does, not to men­tion po­ten­tial pres­id­en­tial con­tenders such as Marco Ru­bio, R-Fla.

In the House, the strik­ing state­ments of sup­port for the pres­id­ent from both Speak­er John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor, R-Va. — without pre­con­di­tions — sharply in­crease the odds in fa­vor of the ad­min­is­tra­tion. But the fact is that an un­likely bi­par­tis­an co­ali­tion of lib­er­al Demo­crats and tea-party Re­pub­lic­ans — the lat­ter in­clud­ing some Paul­ites and some, prob­ably a great­er num­ber, who will re­flex­ively vote against any­thing sup­por­ted by Barack Obama — poses a real chal­lenge to suc­cess.

When I heard the pres­id­ent, that chal­lenge was my first thought. My second was the lar­ger dy­nam­ic of a con­gres­sion­al sched­ule already at­ten­u­ated and over­booked. The House is sched­uled to be in ses­sion for four days be­gin­ning Sept. 9, four days be­gin­ning Sept. 17, and one more day, Sept. 30, a total of nine this month. It has sched­uled only 14 days in Oc­to­ber, and all of eight in Novem­ber. Now, let’s see, what do they have to do? Start with keep­ing the gov­ern­ment func­tion­ing via ap­pro­pri­ations or con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tions for the fisc­al year that starts Oct. 1. Then there is the debt ceil­ing, with the drop-dead date for rais­ing it com­ing some­where around mid-Oc­to­ber (the House is set to be away from Oct. 12-27.) And there is the farm bill, with an ur­gent need to re­solve it be­fore Sept. 30, when the cur­rent ex­ten­sion ex­pires.

It is hard to ima­gine that Con­gress will re­solve the Syr­ia is­sue in a couple of days of de­bate, es­pe­cially since the House will be in­clined to write and de­bate its own res­ol­u­tion, sev­er­al com­mit­tees will be clam­or­ing to hold hear­ings, and most mem­bers will want to take time on the floor to ex­plain their po­s­i­tions. Just as im­port­ant, Syr­ia will oc­cupy the full time and at­ten­tion of all the ma­jor play­ers here, in­clud­ing con­gres­sion­al lead­ers, ex­ec­ut­ive of­fi­cials, and the me­dia. But resolv­ing the show­downs over spend­ing and the debt lim­it, with their own end-game ne­go­ti­ations, also re­quire the full time and at­ten­tion of the same play­ers, with the pos­sible ex­cep­tions of the chairs of the money com­mit­tees, the Treas­ury sec­ret­ary, the head of OMB, and so on. And they can’t make any de­cisions without the in­volve­ment of their su­per­i­ors.

I have seen many in­stances of an over­loaded agenda with a lim­ited amount of time, usu­ally at the end of ses­sions or right be­fore elec­tions. But I have nev­er seen any­thing quite like this. For Boehner, this could be a wel­come ex­cuse — what Wash­ing­ton Post blog­ger Greg Sar­gent called an “es­cape hatch” — to put off the fights over gov­ern­ment shut­downs and debt-ceil­ing breaches for a couple of months. But that only would put off the time of reck­on­ing; it will not solve the prob­lems or lessen the chasm between the Re­pub­lic­ans in Con­gress and the pres­id­ent and his Demo­crats over the fisc­al is­sues, nor will it cre­ate a path to res­ol­u­tion of a farm bill that has been caught in ideo­lo­gic­al hell for a seem­ing etern­ity.

Maybe the al­li­ance among Boehner, Can­tor, and Obama on Syr­ia will ease the way to a deal on spend­ing and the debt lim­it. Yeah, right. Mean­while, a right-wing chor­us of out­siders such as Er­ick Er­ick­son sug­gest that the Re­pub­lic­ans should hold the fund­ing for Obama­care host­age to their votes on a Syr­i­an res­ol­u­tion, while Rush Limbaugh sug­gests that the Syr­i­an rebels gassed their own people. As the Chinese say, in­ter­est­ing times ahead.