Obama Risks His Credibility on Syria

Senate approval a toss-up, House very much in doubt.

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President Barack Obama said Congress' credibility is on the line in a press conference on Syria on Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in Stockholm, Sweden.
Several of President Obama's advisers have spent the week making the case for a military response to Syria's use of chemical weapons.

This could be the most consequential moment in Barack Obama's presidency. With his credibility as a leader at stake, he is asking Congress to authorize an attack on Syria because the Damascus regime allegedly used chemical weapons in an ongoing civil war. But so far, his campaign for approval has not been going well.

[READ: Congress Returns From Recess With Syria in Spotlight]

Obama has agreed to interviews with six television networks Monday. He also is scheduled to make his case in an address to the nation on Tuesday, the night before the Senate, controlled by Democrats, is expected to narrowly approve the use-of-force resolution that Obama is seeking. This will cap more than a week of lobbying, both publicly and privately, by the president and his surrogates in favor of U.S. intervention in Syria.

An Obama victory in the Senate is by no means assured. But the main problem for Obama will come in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. The Washington Post reported Sunday that 227 House members, a majority, either opposed or leaned against military action at this time, with 181 undecided and 25 in favor. It's unclear whether Obama can turn things around. If the Senate approves the use-of-force resolution, the House probably will vote on it the week of Sept. 16.

Obama previewed his final pitch in his weekly radio and internet speech Saturday. "We cannot turn a blind eye to images like the ones we've seen out of Syria," Obama said. "Failing to respond to this outrageous attack would increase the risk that chemical weapons could be used again; that they would fall into the hands of terrorists who might use them against us, and it would send a horrible signal to other nations that there would be no consequences for their use of these weapons. All of which would pose a serious threat to our national security. That's why we can't ignore chemical weapons attacks like this one – even if they happen halfway around the world."

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Obama allies say Iran is also a factor. They argue that if Obama can't get Congress to approve limited strikes in Syria, the Iranian regime will see this as a sign of weakness and will be encouraged to accelerate the development of nuclear weapons.

Obama also argues that members of Congress and the public should trust him to limit the U.S. response against the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad and avoid entangling America in another war. "I was elected to end wars, not start them," Obama told reporters.

But many legislators of both major parties say there have been too many mixed messages from the White House. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, favors striking in Syria but he told CBS Sunday that the administration's approach to that country has been "a confusing mess."

Many members of Congress are returning from their summer recess with the firm belief that their constituents want them to vote no. The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll finds that nearly 60 per cent of Americans oppose Obama's plan for military intervention in Syria.

Obama got another taste of rejection late last week at a meeting of the Group of 20 nations in St. Petersburg, Russia. He received varying degrees of support from only half the G-20 nations for the Syria strikes, but made no headway in persuading Russian President Vladimir Putin to support the intervention. Russia is blocking the endorsement of the United Nations Security Council, where approval would give the operation the luster of international backing. So it looks like the United States will have to do all the heavy lifting if Obama proceeds with the strikes, in a scenario reminiscent of George W. Bush's unilateralist approach to national security issues that Obama condemned as a presidential candidate.

[POLL: Proposed Syria Strike Least Popular Military Action in 20 Years]

It's rare for a commander in chief to be rebuffed by Congress when he decides to go all-out to win support for a military operation. Most legislators generally defer to the commander in chief. But this time, Americans are war-weary after years of conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq. Obama told reporters he can sympathize with these feelings. But he insists that the Assad regime must be punished.

The problem is that if he fails to win support from Congress, his credibility as an effective leader will be in tatters. And this will probably be the basis for the ultimate argument by Obama and his aides – that being rebuffed on this crucial issue would greatly damage his effectiveness at home and abroad.

Obama has declined to say whether he would proceed with strikes if Congress said no. But if he does proceed, it's likely that a number of legislators would move to impeach him for exceeding his authority. This confrontation would make it much more difficult for Obama to govern for the remaining three years of his presidency.

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 kwalsh@usnews.com and followed on Facebook and Twitter.

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