Congressional Math on Syria


By Troy Kuersten

Is Obama making a huge mistake by giving Congress a major voice in deciding whether or not to strike Syria?  That depends on what you think he’s trying to do.

If he’s trying to strengthen his hand in the international arena, I’d say this attempt so far is a failure.  If he’s trying to walk himself back from his red line on Syrian chemical weapons, I’d say this might work.

However, as a domestic partisan tactic, this may end up being highly useful.

Let’s start with the fact that, starting in the late 1960’s, Republicans have been seen as the “tough on defense” party.  They have lately been losing this image, particularly when they found themselves castigating a sitting president for his military intervention in Libya.

The ideal situation for the Republicans would be to allow a resolution authorizing force to pass with a bare minimum of Republicans on the record in favor.  This means five senators voting for cloture (and as few as possible actually voting for the bill) and eighteen house Republicans in favor with all of the Democrats lining up behind the President.

This frees them from the charge that they weakened America by actually blocking military action, but it allows them to criticize the other party and the President in particular when something goes wrong.  And something will go wrong; any civil conflict involves some level of chaos and when decisions are made on the spot by thousands of low-level military and political leaders it’s impossible to see a European democracy flourishing within a year of any American military intervention.

But this is where the calculus breaks down: a large block of Democrats are on record opposing the use of military force in Syria.

F-35No one expects the President to be able to browbeat these Democrats into voting for the measure, the strength and tenacity of the anti-war wing of the Democratic Party is well known far and wide.  Now, if the resolution is to pass, it will require many more Republican votes in both the House and Senate.  If they vote for it in enough numbers to pass it, it becomes bipartisan and they will be forever linked to the results.  If enough of them don’t vote for it to cause its failure, they will be blamed for weakening Obama’s (and therefore the nation’s) negotiating position as it seeks a resolution to the problem in Syria.

Throwing the problem to Congress seems like a winning partisan move for President Obama.  Just as long as his own party doesn’t fall in line.

Picture 1: White House photo by Susan Sterner (President Delivers “State of the Union”) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Picture 2: USAF [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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