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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In May, Obama delivered a speech to a military university in the capital that invoked the laws that "constrain the power of the President even during wartime." Libya, he believed, should be the exception, not the rule, its timetable rushed by the prospect of an imminent massacre. "It's important for us to get out of the habit of just saying, 'Well, we'll let the President kind of stretch the boundaries of his authority as far as he can,'" Obama said on Sept. 4 during a visit to Sweden. But if the gambit fails and Congress rejects his request, there could be a real cost for the President's ability to deter with threats other defiant nations like Iran and North Korea. Obama has said he reserves the right to act against Syria even if Congress balks.

If Congress approves the action, the President will find some political cover, or at least some company, in case things go from bad to worse in Syria. His aides also argue that a united American front will set a clear precedent for building international consensus against the use or spread of weapons of mass destruction, a key goal of his presidency. "Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something," Obama said about the fight to contain the nuclear threat, shortly after taking office. "The world must stand together."

As things now stand, Obama is likely to win backing for a bombing campaign from the Democratic-held Senate, which has already drafted a bipartisan resolution imposing limits on the length of an operation. But the Republican-controlled House will be trickier. While House Speaker John Boehner and his top lieutenant Eric Cantor support strikes to punish Assad, they expect the White House to "take the lead on any whipping effort," says Michael Steel, a Boehner spokesman. Translation: Obama is on his own. The House rank and file doesn't just distrust the President. It has also begun to tally the costs of endless war. "What is the end goal within these countries?" asks Representative Trey Radel, a Florida Republican. "What have we accomplished with so many lives that have been lost?"

Obama's aides are now in a furious sprint to woo wavering members. Progressive Democrats are leery of an open-ended conflict, and some are actively campaigning against a cause championed by a President from their own party. On a Labor Day briefing call for House Democrats, Representative Rick Nolan of Minnesota lectured Secretary of State John Kerry about the perils of another foreign quagmire, likening the Syrian conflict to Vietnam. "Have we forgotten the lessons of Southeast Asia?" Nolan demanded, according to an official familiar with the discussion.

But this is not Vietnam, as Kerry, who was wounded there, knows well. And Obama's national-security officials are taking care to explain why it is more than a localized civil war. They argue that inaction would embolden regional enemies who pose a direct security threat to the U.S. "Iran is hoping you look the other way," Kerry told a Senate panel on Sept. 3. "Hizballah is hoping isolationism will prevail." AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby with huge clout among congressional Republicans, has cast U.S. intervention as vital to Israel's security interests.

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