WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama has taken a huge political gamble at home and abroad by asking Congress to approve his plans to use air power to punish Syrian leader Bashar Assad for a chemical weapons attack.
Obama already has appeared less than sure-footed in his handling of the Syria crisis. First, Obama declared in 2011 that Assad had to be removed from power and said last year that the use of chemical weapons would cross a "red line" requiring an American response.
Then, convinced that Assad used those weapons on Aug. 21, Obama decided to act, said a military strike was necessary and indicated it was just a matter of when, not if. But last weekend, shortly after announcing plans to take military action, Obama suddenly said he was still prepared to strike but wanted to ask Congress to vote on his plans.
Obama's attempt to share responsibility for a U.S. bombing and cruise missile campaign with the legislative branch has one of three possible outcomes:
1. Congress votes to support an attack, even as polls show most Americans oppose a military strike. The United States' experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has curbed the public's appetite for foreign military adventures. An attack with the blessing of Congress would leave two branches of government acting in direct opposition to the will of the people who voted the president and lawmakers into office.
2. Congress rejects Obama's plan to attack, but he orders the military into action anyway. In that case, Obama would have handed opposition lawmakers another tool with which to attack him. That likely would only deepen the partisan split that already grips the government, making it even more difficult for Obama to emerge victorious in upcoming high-stakes economic battles. Conservatives are threatening to cause the nation to default on its debts or to shut down the government for lack of agreement on the budget, which expires at the end of the month. The opposition right wing is demanding big cuts in the president's health care overhaul.
3. Congress fails to approve a strike on Syria, and Obama decides not to attack. In that case, the president would look powerless, and, he would lose credibility as leader of the world's only superpower.
After this week's G-20 summit in Russia and an unscheduled meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Obama said he and Putin were still at odds over the White House push to punish Assad. Putin said Moscow would continue assisting Assad if the United States attacks. He said he and Obama did agree that the only way to end the violence in Syria was through a diplomatic, not military, process.
Obama said he plans to address the nation from the White House on Tuesday. He gave a preview of his message by saying that a military offensive is the only way to prevent Assad and other rogue leaders from using chemical weapons in the future.
Obama, pressed repeatedly by reporters, also said "it would be a mistake to speculate" about whether he would go ahead with an attack if Congress doesn't support it. "If the president does not act, with or without authorization, what remains of his credibility and American believability — however imperfect the options — is going to be fundamentally undermined," said Aaron David Miller, vice president of the Wilson Center and a key adviser to Republican and Democratic secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli negotiations.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter and scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Obama's turn to Congress "was not necessary. It was pregnant with possible complications."
So far in Congress, the foreign relations committee in the Democratic-controlled Senate has voted to back Obama. The authorization, if it passes in the full Senate next week, would give Obama 60 days with a possible 30-day extension for the bombing campaign, and prohibits the introduction of American troops. In a bow to Republican Sen. John McCain, the authorization to use force also contains language that calls for altering the momentum in the Syrian civil war, in which the Assad regime has the upper hand.
In the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, the majority has historically voted against any Obama initiative. But this time there is a split between the party's more conservative tea party faction, whose members continue to oppose military action, and more moderate members — the likes of Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who have declared they will back a strike on Syria.
Democrats in both houses are split, which is probably the biggest hurdle for winning congressional backing. Even some of Obama's closest allies are saying they won't back military action. Obama used his time at the G-20 summit to try to win international backing. Russia has blocked the United Nations from taking up any resolution on Syria, a long-time Moscow ally. In Britain, the parliament voted down a move by Prime Minister David Cameron that would have made British resources available to Obama. That was a stunning reversal in a country that was Washington's closest ally in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Only the French have come out in full support of a U.S. air campaign, but they're now waiting to see what Congress does.
Before arriving at the summit, Obama seemed to express a readiness to act with or without Congress. "As commander-in-chief, I always preserve the right and the responsibility to act on behalf of America's national security," he told reporters in Sweden. "I do not believe that I was required to take this to Congress. But I did not take this to Congress just because it's an empty exercise; I think it's important to have Congress's support on it."
Brzezinski thinks at this point, Obama has no option but to attack, but "it has to be calculated in such a way that it makes it very clear that it will not be profitable for him (Assad) to use again chemical weapons. But not anything far beyond that." He said he hopes the Syrian conflict can be steered back into a stalemate that would allow a greater diplomatic effort time to work.
Steven R. Hurst is AP international political writer and has covered foreign affairs for 35 years.