The Red Lines That Bind

President Obama wants Congress tied to Syria strikes.

Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, right, near the end of several hours of testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on President Barack Obama's request for congressional authorization for military intervention in Syria, a response to last month's alleged sarin gas attack in the Syrian civil war, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
National Journal
Major Garrett
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Major Garrett
Sept. 3, 2013, 3:42 p.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama, in the end, had no choice but to plead with Con­gress for lim­ited au­thor­iz­a­tion to launch a lim­ited air strike to wage a lim­ited war for a lim­ited dur­a­tion with lim­ited as­pir­a­tions, lim­ited mil­it­ary tar­gets, lim­ited stra­tegic aims, and lim­ited col­lat­er­al dam­age “¦ all to lim­it po­ten­tial un­in­ten­ded con­sequences.

The au­thor­iz­a­tion Obama sent to Con­gress might be re­writ­ten with more lim­it­a­tions ad­ded. And Obama is OK with that “so long as we are ac­com­plish­ing what needs to be ac­com­plished.”

If the pres­id­ent wants to ac­com­plish what needs to be ac­com­plished, he bet­ter move the polls. The Wash­ing­ton Post and the Pew Re­search Cen­ter found deep skep­ti­cism that could harden in­to im­mov­able op­pos­i­tion.

Mean­while, Syr­ia is mov­ing weapons try­ing to thwart an at­tack.

Even though Obama left it to Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry last week to sound like Dirty Harry, it was the pres­id­ent who lived out In­spect­or Harry Cal­la­han’s aph­or­ism: “A man’s got to know his lim­it­a­tions.”

The lim­its were not those leg­ally con­strain­ing a pres­id­ent from swift, uni­lat­er­al mil­it­ary ac­tion on be­half of U.S. na­tion­al se­cur­ity in­terests. Many pres­id­ents have ac­ted without Con­gress. Ac­cord­ing to a Justice De­part­ment ana­lys­is provided to Pres­id­ent Bush after 9/11, pres­id­ents had launched 125 mil­it­ary cam­paigns without con­gres­sion­al ap­prov­al.

What lim­ited Obama was his re­luct­ance to im­me­di­ately and mil­it­ar­ily en­force his “red line” rhet­or­ic against the chem­ic­al-weapons use by Syr­ia’s Bashar al-As­sad. Even be­fore Obama an­nounced he would seek con­gres­sion­al au­thor­iz­a­tion for mil­it­ary strikes, the ad­min­is­tra­tion began to erase the pres­id­ent from the en­tire “red-line” equa­tion. It was all about in­ter­na­tion­al norms, not Obama. That’s why the White House thought it was wise for Brit­ish Prime Min­is­ter Dav­id Camer­on to take the lead. When Par­lia­ment re­fused, Obama was alone with his red line.

It was and re­mains an un­com­fort­able op­er­a­tion­al mar­riage. Hence the move to Con­gress to share the bur­den, em­brace the rhet­or­ic, and own the mil­it­ary con­sequences of ac­tion or in­ac­tion.

Dur­ing the be­gin­ning of the pro­cess, Kerry told the Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee on Tues­day that it wasn’t even Obama’s rhet­or­ic, des­pite the ob­vi­ous evid­ence. Kerry said Obama was merely draw­ing a red line “any­one would draw.” Ex­cept “any­one” is not pres­id­ent of the United States. Obama is. He drew the red line. At least one Demo­crat, Rep. Charles Ran­gel of New York, now con­siders Obama’s “red line” an em­bar­rass­ment.

There was an­oth­er lim­it­a­tion Obama con­fron­ted, one far less un­der­stood but, in my view, the most im­port­ant of all. Obama faces a con­tinu­ing-res­ol­u­tion vote at the end of the month to keep the gov­ern­ment open. That vote is a table-set­ter for all the tough budget and debt votes Obama and Con­gress will con­front — the first skir­mish be­fore the lar­ger fights over rais­ing the debt ceil­ing to avoid de­fault and the fate of se­quest­ra­tion 2.0.

If the White House had not gone to Con­gress on Syr­ia, the CR vote would have be­come Obama’s le­gis­lat­ive Wa­ter­loo. It would have be­come the bi­par­tis­an cru­cible for every griev­ance as­so­ci­ated with the Syr­ia cam­paign. Kerry spelled them out with me on Face the Na­tion even as he re­jec­ted the con­ten­tion that law­makers were already in a bi­par­tis­an lath­er. Ac­cord­ing to Kerry, the risk of not go­ing to Con­gress was that we would “have the de­bate after an at­tack be all about our con­sti­tu­tion­al pro­cess or did the pres­id­ent ab­use his power or was it cor­rect and have weeks of — of sort of be­ing torn apart about that.”

The “be­ing torn apart” dy­nam­ic would have vis­ited it­self first on the CR vote. Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans would have used it to pun­ish Obama and re­gister their out­rage over be­ing ig­nored or cir­cum­ven­ted. Los­ing a vote on keep­ing the gov­ern­ment open be­cause Con­gress was in an up­roar — full-throated and bi­par­tis­an — about Syr­ia would have doomed Obama in the se­quester and debt-lim­it fights. And it would have vir­tu­ally elim­in­ated any chance of passing im­mig­ra­tion re­form, ren­der­ing Obama’s second term a le­gis­lat­ive nullity.

Go­ing to Con­gress does not guar­an­tee Obama vic­tory in Syr­ia or any­where else. Vic­tory in Syr­ia is so im­possible to define that Obama isn’t even seek­ing it. His only goal is to “de­ter” As­sad from us­ing chem­ic­al weapons again and “de­grade” his ca­pa­city to even con­sider the op­tion with mil­it­ary strikes that are, ac­cord­ing to Kerry, “lim­ited in dur­a­tion and scope.” If Obama wins the vote in Con­gress, he will have cre­ated a le­gis­lat­ive co­ali­tion of lim­it­a­tions. Whatever co­ali­tion Obama as­sembles glob­ally will be a rhet­or­ic­al one — ex­cept for France, which will likely bug out if Con­gress re­jects Obama’s mil­it­ary plans. That is a far cry, his­tor­ic­ally, from Pres­id­ent Bush’s much-ma­ligned “co­ali­tion of the will­ing” in Ir­aq.

Lim­its define pre­vi­ous Obama policy in Syr­ia. The ad­min­is­tra­tion now re­luct­antly ad­mits that Syr­i­an op­pos­i­tion forces have not re­ceived a single weapon since Syr­ia was found to have crossed the red line the first time. The U.S. has de­livered MREs and med­ic­al kits — neither of which, amaz­ingly, proved po­tent against Syr­i­an ar­til­lery, tanks, and auto­mat­ic weapons.

Even, so House Speak­er John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor, R-Va., sup­port Obama. There is no evid­ence they will whip the vote and every sug­ges­tion Boehner and Can­tor want to avoid blame if it fails. That’s why, after Boehner an­nounced his sup­port, spokes­man Brendan Buck said that to win the up­com­ing vote Obama had “to make his case to the Amer­ic­an people and their elec­ted rep­res­ent­at­ives.” Fur­ther, Buck said that Obama must “take the lead on any whip­ping ef­fort.”

Obama won’t have much chance to do that in Sweden or at the G-20 Sum­mit in St. Peters­burg, Rus­sia. But Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden will make the case privately while Kerry, De­fense Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel, and oth­ers carry the ball pub­licly. The ad­min­is­tra­tion re­ceived a sig­ni­fic­ant boost late Tues­day when the Amer­ic­an Is­rael Pub­lic Af­fairs Com­mit­tee urged sup­port for the Syr­ia res­ol­u­tion. That but­tresses White House ar­gu­ments that Is­rael has a stake in the Syr­ia de­bate and that gives Obama vi­tal lob­by­ing pull with fence-sit­ters of both parties.

In the end, Obama wants to share the bur­den and lim­it the blame in Syr­ia. So do Boehner and House Re­pub­lic­ans.

This is what lim­ited ac­tion on be­half of lim­ited means with lim­ited dur­a­tion yields. But it doesn’t mean both sides won’t be able to ac­com­plish what needs to be ac­com­plished.

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