Obama Takes Riverboat Gamble on Syria

Obama speaks about the economy on July 11, 2011.
National Journal
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.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4421) }}

What We're Following See More »
Trump Won’t Debate Sanders After All
1 days ago

Trump, in a statement: “Based on the fact that the Democratic nominating process is totally rigged and Crooked Hillary Clinton and Deborah Wasserman Schultz will not allow Bernie Sanders to win, and now that I am the presumptive Republican nominee, it seems inappropriate that I would debate the second place finisher. ... I will wait to debate the first place finisher in the Democratic Party, probably Crooked Hillary Clinton, or whoever it may be.”

UAW: Time to Unite Behind Hillary
3 days ago

"It's about time for unity," said UAW President Dennis Williams. "We're endorsing Hillary Clinton. She's gotten 3 million more votes than Bernie, a million more votes than Donald Trump. She's our nominee." He called Sanders "a great friend of the UAW" while saying Trump "does not support the economic security of UAW families." Some 28 percent of UAW members indicated their support for Trump in an internal survey.

Trump Clinches Enough Delegates for the Nomination
3 days ago

"Donald Trump on Thursday reached the number of delegates needed to clinch the Republican nomination for president, completing an unlikely rise that has upended the political landscape and sets the stage for a bitter fall campaign. Trump was put over the top in the Associated Press delegate count by a small number of the party's unbound delegates who told the AP they would support him at the convention."

Trump/Sanders Debate Before California Primary?
3 days ago
California: It’s Not Over Yet
3 days ago

"Clinton and Bernie Sanders "are now devoting additional money to television advertising. A day after Sanders announced a new ad buy of less than $2 million in the state, Clinton announced her own television campaign. Ads featuring actor Morgan Freeman as well as labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta will air beginning on Fridayin Fresno, Sacramento, and Los Angeles media markets. Some ads will also target Latino voters and Asian American voters. The total value of the buy is about six figures according to the Clinton campaign." Meanwhile, a new poll shows Sanders within the margin of error, trailing Clinton 44%-46%.