Syria: Inside the D.C. War

Will Congress follow the President into an attack that no one wants?

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Jim Watson

Barack Obama makes his case for intervention in Syria during a White House meeting with congressional leaders on Sept. 3.

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Which means that in order to win congressional approval for missile strikes, Obama will have to turn to his own skeptical party for support. It will be an uphill battle, especially if Republican members of Congress abandon the effort en masse. But if Congress approves the resolution in the coming weeks, a large part of the credit will be due to Pelosi and the scores of reluctant Democrats she brings along. "She's key," confides an Administration official involved in the lobbying push. "Pelosi really carries some sway with the liberal members of the House."

This choice comes as the old foreign policy divisions that defined the national landscape since the Iraq war--GOP hawk, Democratic dove--have been scrambled. Now Republican isolationists are ascendant, while other conservatives would pay a steep price in their home districts for supporting anything the President wants. "It's not the kind of vote where you go up to somebody and say, 'I really need you to vote for this,'" Pelosi explains. "This is a vote where you just present the information, the facts, the intelligence, the judgment that you have about what happens if you don't do something, as well as what happens if you do."

The Friday-Night Walk

Perhaps the most surprising part of the Syrian debate is that the nation is having it at all. Presidents have long had the prerogative to decide when and where to send the military for limited attacks of the sort planned for Syria, without prior approval from Congress or the American people. Ronald Reagan invaded Grenada. George H.W. Bush invaded Panama. Bill Clinton launched air strikes over the Balkans and fired cruise missiles at Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama already undertook the bombing of Libya and the toppling of its dictator without any approval from Congress.

But on the eve of what was an almost telegraphed strike on Syria, the President found himself standing alone. The British Parliament abandoned him. The Arab League could not commit. The United Nations faced Russian obstruction, and the U.S. Congress was unable to cobble together a cogent position, given the low enthusiasm of the American people.

All the President needed to do was say the word. Instead, he went for a walk. For 45 minutes on the muggy evening of Friday, Aug. 30, he strolled through the South Lawn of the White House, just out of view of the ubiquitous tourists gawking with iPhones held aloft from the National Mall. There he decided he did not want to launch this war alone.

One theory of Obama's 11th-hour change was that he needed a way to avoid the conflict he had backed himself into. But senior White House advisers say that the decision was, in fact, a pivot Obama has mulled for some time. After 12 years of nonstop conflict--some inherited, some of his choosing--and a generation more of unilateral executive action, Obama wanted to return to an era in which the President and the Congress are equal partners. "He's getting us off a permanent war footing," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney tells TIME.

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