“I’m a small country, and nobody expects me to do anything about chemical weapons around the world,” Obama quoted his fellow leader as saying. “They know I have no capacity to do something, and it’s tough because people do look to the United States.”
Then, shifting to his own voice, Obama said: “And the question for the American people is, ‘Is that a responsibility that we’re willing to bear?’ ”
At the heart of Obama’s parable about the burdens of power is the reason why a second-term president has suddenly turned to an unpredictable, unruly and often-hostile Congress for a decision on war.
He wants an answer to his question: What, after nearly a dozen years of war, is the country willing to bear? Obama appears willing, so far, to risk a severe setback to his presidential prestige to get an answer, even if it turns out to be — as seems quite possible — that the country will not support even a limited military intervention in Syria’s civil war.
His decision to seek congressional approval to attack Syria, where 120,000 people have been killed since Obama first called for President Bashar al-Assad to step down, baffled even his closest advisers. Obama made the decision on his own, less than two weeks after Assad allegedly used poison gas to kill 1,500 people, hundreds of them children.
Now Obama is demanding that Congress — and, by extension, the U.S. electorate — clarify where, when and why the United States should act militarily — not just in Syria, but also in the next region roiled by atrocity.
As early as next week, Congress will vote whether to allow Obama to begin limited military strikes against Assad’s government, which may have first crossed Obama’s stated “red line” of chemical weapons use late last year in an attack the administration still considers under investigation.
Consistent with polls showing scant support for a Syrian operation, the “no” votes have been piling up, especially in the House. As of Friday, more than half of the House, including dozens of Democrats, have declared themselves against or leaning against such a resolution, according to a Washington Post analysis.
Securing a resolution appears remote as Obama returns to Washington. Strong resistance is coming from inside his own party — the one that nominated him in 2008 because of his clear stance against the Iraq war — and on Tuesday he intends to speak on Syria from the White House to a national audience.
A new military operation would run counter to the overall direction of the administration, which has been focused on ending two long U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As one senior administration official said about Afghanistan this year: “In the background of everything we will do this term is ending the war, however you want to define it.”