Are Politics Trumping Policy on Syria?

The president should call Congress back now and get down to business.

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Between them, Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama made a persuasive, compelling case for military action against Syria. The president is to be commended for his decision to consult with Congress before taking action, even as he held out for the position that he did not have to do so.

Nevertheless, if the situation is as urgent as Obama and Kerry describe, if the need to respond to Syria's use of chemical weapons against its own people is so critical that the fate of nearly one-hundred year old international covenants rests on some kind of show of force, why is the president waiting until September 9 to begin the debate?

It is not enough that America, as the world's lone remaining superpower and the defender of democracy and liberty, be able to respond in decisive ways. America must also be able to respond quickly, especially in the “run and gun” world of international terrorism. By waiting more than a week for Congress to return for the debate to begin, Obama is either showing weakness or there is something else afoot.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

Obama's delay gives Syrian dictator Bashar Assad time, time to hide chemical weapons, to move troops and to harden the defenses at critical, sensitive military and communications sites all around Damascus. Obama's delay gives Assad time to prepare, something most serious students of military strategy would say is a mistake. It is perhaps not as big a mistake as telegraphing your intentions in interviews with Judy Woodruff on PBS or in a televised press conference from the White House, but a mistake nonetheless.

Getting a resolution of support through Congress should not be difficult, especially with the case for action the administration has made. Speaker of the House John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor have already stated that they are inclined to support a military response to Syria's use of chemical weapons while the Democrats – who supported the war in Iraq and Afghanistan before they were against it – have been curiously silent.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is willing to allow the debate to move forward in the Senate, but he has yet to outline the specifics. Will 51 votes be sufficient to grant the president authorization for a military strike against Syria or will the wily Nevada Democrat insist that anything pass with a filibuster-proof majority?

[Vote: Is Obama Right to Ask for Congressional Approval on Bombing Syria?]

Or does Obama have something else in mind? By delaying the vote, by delaying the start of the debate, he is allowing opposition to build, especially among Republicans who already seem divided on the issue. If the vote to authorize force fails, will he blame the GOP for the defeat while ignoring the votes of the stalwart anti-war Democrats who are thick within the House and Senate and, thereafter, blame Republicans for any additional genocide --- allowing the left to refer to the GOP as the “Genocide's Okay Party” up through the November 2014 election?

If the president is in fact manipulating the situation in Syria for domestic political purposes, then shame on him. Some things, including the response to genocide, ought to be above petty partisanship. We learned during the Bush years that the Democrats will try anything, even the cynical manipulation of foreign crises to maintain their hold on power and to gain an electoral advantage. If the president is serious, if Syria is as much of an international crisis as he says it is, and if the United States is prepared to “go it alone” in responding to it with military force, then he should call Congress back now and get down to business.

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