Syria has utterly confounded the Washington political establishment, from the White House to the Capitol. There’s no script for what’s been happening. The usual political polarization, the simple calculus of R vs. D, has disintegrated into a tangle of uncomfortable alliances.
When President Obama originally sought congressional approval for military strikes against the Syrian regime for allegedly using chemical weapons, he found himself needing support from anywhere and everywhere on the political spectrum — even on the fringes.
He could use an “aye,” for example, from Rep. Trent Franks, the Arizona Republican and far-right conservative. But here’s Franks, in a subterranean corridor, emerging Monday night from a high-level briefing on Syria:
“It just seems that everything the president touches in foreign policy, he injects it with chaos and death.”
So he’s not an Obama fan. But he also abhors the Syrian regime. Franks said he’s “undeclared” on how he’ll vote. Undecided? No, just undeclared. He wouldn’t even confirm that he’s made up his mind.
This is an unusual Washington moment, with few if any precedents in recent memory. The situation changes at Twitter velocity. The administration’s tone in recent days has evolved from bellicose to diplomatic. Tuesday night, addressing the nation, Obama shifted course again, announcing that he was asking Congress to postpone votes on authorizing military action against Syria.
A surprise Russian overture — an offer to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control — scrambled any sense of where this is leading. The only thing certain at this point is that a military strike against Syria would arrive with the same element of surprise as Christmas.
Decisions on war and peace are always fraught with constitutional questions, and the War Powers Resolution, passed in the 1970s after the Vietnam War, gives Congress a certain degree of authority to approve or deny the deployment of forces in war zones.
But Congress’s role is also circumscribed by that same resolution. The president has up to 90 days to take military action without seeking congressional approval, but there is always debate about when, precisely, the clock starts ticking, and what, exactly, constitutes hostilities, said Douglas Kriner, an associate professor of political science at Boston University and the author of “After the Rubicon: Congress, Presidents and the Politics of Waging War.”
Kriner and other historians said they can’t think of a time when a president went to Congress on a high-stakes military authorization vote when the vote was very much in doubt.
President George H.W. Bush was confident he’d win authorization to prosecute the Persian Gulf War, and he got it. President George W. Bush also knew he had the votes for the invasion of Iraq. In between, in 1999, the Senate approved a resolution backing President Bill Clinton’s air campaign against Serbs in Kosovo, but the resolution failed in the House in a tie, 213 to 213. That vote was pretty much irrelevant, though: The NATO-led airstrikes had already started, and the White House ignored the conflicting signals from the Hill.
Obama seemed poised to order airstrikes against the Syrian government 10 days ago, but at the last moment, he shocked his aides and many allies by kicking the question to the Hill, where the president has few close friends among Democrats and where many Republican lawmakers are loath to say yes to anything the president favors.
Barring a Russian breakthrough, or some other diplomatic solution, Congress will have to do something it doesn’t like to do and hasn’t been good at doing for a long time: Make a decision.
In Washington, indecision on big matters has become a refined art. This week, for example, congressional leaders will once again deploy a favorite tool of collective indecision on the budget, the “continuing resolution,” a way of punting harder decisions until the end of the year, or even longer. The sequester is already chewing through agency budgets even though most everyone who created those budget cuts agreed that they were a terrible way to trim spending. It’s just easier than making decisions on how to do that.
Obama, in effect, is forcing Congress to share the ownership, for better or worse, of American military policy toward Syria, a situation that offers no attractive options. If Obama had gone ahead with the military strikes in August, and they had turned out badly, opponents in Congress would “just sit back and hammer him on it,” Kriner said.
The two parties have become more ideologically coherent in the last couple of decades, leading to a profusion of party-line votes. But if Congress goes ahead with a Syria vote, the votes of individual lawmakers will be hard to predict, because there are so many different reasons to be for or against the military strikes. The ayes and nays don’t organize themselves neatly along the partisan divide.
“It’s like what Congress looked like in the ’70s,” said Steve Teles, an associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University.
Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican who skews libertarian, has threatened to filibuster the military authorization resolution in the Senate. “We will ensure that it’s a 60-vote margin,” he said as he entered a senators-only elevator on his way to the chamber.
Obama went to both Senate caucuses Tuesday to press his case; his meeting with Republicans on their home turf was a rare event for this president.
“Pretty late in the administration to start making friends,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said late Monday.
Some lawmakers think the president should have acted straightaway rather than looking for congressional approval.
“I think this is a circus. We ought to take a timeout,” said Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.). “This is ridiculous that they’re putting the Congress through this.”
Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) said Obama should have ordered the military strikes weeks ago.
“It was a terrible dereliction of duty,” King said. “My own feeling is, he flinched.”
But many other members of Congress had asked to be looped into the decision. And the fact that the process has become messy is just the way democracy is supposed to work, said Rep. John B. Larson (D-Conn.), one of the president’s allies on the Syria issue. Liberally paraphrasing the famed judge Learned Hand, Larson said, “Democracy and freedom is that which leaves you not too sure.”