An increasingly isolated President Obama is having trouble marshaling support at home and abroad as he appears to move closer to ordering military intervention in Syria.
Many members of Congress of both major parties are demanding that he seek their authorization before taking action, with a strong possibility that such a vote would fail. The public, weary after years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, is deeply skeptical about another U.S. commitment in a faraway conflict, with 60 percent of Americans saying that the United States should not intervene militarily in the Syrian civil war, according to the latest Reuters/Ipsos poll.
The United Nations Security Council is unlikely to support U.S. strikes because of opposition from Russia and China.
And Obama suffered another setback Thursday evening when the British House of Commons rejected Prime Minister David Cameron's request for an endorsement of British participation in a U.S. military intervention in Syria. Afterward, Cameron said, "It's clear to me that the British Parliament and the British people do not wish to see military action. I get that, and I will act accordingly."
In response, White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden issued a statement that, "President Obama's decision-making will be guided by what is in the best interests of the United States. He believes that there are core interests at stake for the United States and that countries who violate international norms regarding chemical weapons need to be held accountable."
Despite all this, White House officials said Obama might still order limited military strikes in Syria to punish the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons against civilians Aug. 21, killing hundreds of people including women and children. The strikes would also be designed to deter Assad from using chemical weapons again.
Critics say the kind of limited attacks that Obama is envisioning would not seriously hurt the Assad regime and might cause more civilian casualties and inflame the region against the United States and its ally Israel. U.S. intervention could also provoke an angry Assad to get even tougher in battling the rebels in the ongoing Syrian civil war.
Obama has yet to produce evidence that Assad's regime was behind the chemical attack. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney and other administration officials say there's no doubt that Assad and his government were responsible, and they say the United States will reveal the proof shortly.
Administration officials consulted with congressional leaders late Thursday but the details of their briefing weren't disclosed publicly.
Some critics are already warning that the evidence needs to be much more convincing than what President George W. Bush's administration produced to justify the war in Iraq in 2003. Bush and his advisers said at the time that the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction which would be a threat to the United States and Iraq's neighbors. Those weapons were never found, and the damage to U.S. credibility is still being felt.
It's all the more uncomfortable for Obama because he was nominated for president by the Democrats in 2008 in part because of his opposition to the Iraq war and his critique that the Bush administration had justified the war based on what turned out to be the false premise that Hussein had WMD. Obama was also critical, as were many other Democrats, of Bush for being too much of a unilateralist in foreign affairs.
Now Obama seems to be in that same position, apparently moving toward use of force without much support from allies and lacking the endorsement of the United Nations or the outright backing of Congress.
If Obama fails to produce sufficient evidence against Assad and still goes ahead with attacks, it could result in another serious blow to U.S. credibility around the world and at home.
In the United States, members of Congress are complaining the Obama isn't keeping them sufficiently informed. Many want him to seek congressional approval for any military action based on the 1973 War Powers Resolution. But Obama wouldn't be the first president to ignore that resolution and argue that the Constitution gives the commander in chief ample power to use the military when he believes it is necessary to defend the nation. He says Syria's use of chemical weapons could threaten the United States and its allies.
- Chuck Hagel on Syria: U.S. Ready to Go
- Congress Wants to Give Input on Syria
- Opinion: Why the U.S. Should Not Intervene in Syria
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com and "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." Ken Walsh can be reached at email@example.com and on Facebook and Twitter.