The Washington Post

President Obama’s giant Syria gamble

President Obama's stunning reversal on Syria -- deciding to send a use of force resolution to Congress to approve or disapprove just hours after he seemed set on bypassing the legislative branch -- amounts to a massive gamble by the commander in chief.

President Obama announces his plan to seek Congressional approval for a Syria strike.

As we have noted in this space, there is little certainty of the outcome of the vote, which will come, at the earliest, the week of Sept. 9 when both houses of Congress return to Washington after the August recess. And, if Congress doesn't pass the resolution, Obama will be in an even smaller box -- policy-wise -- than he found himself at the end of last week following the British Parliament's rejection of a similar use of force resolution.

Lets's start by walking through just how big a challenge Obama has built for himself.

First, consider that roughly 40 percent of House Democrats voted against the use of force resolution against Iraq in 2002. (Unlike 2002, Democrats have one of their own in the White House, but the 2010 election has made the caucus more liberal today -- and more opposed to military action -- than it was in 2002.)

Second, remember that Obama is in the middle of his second term. He is playing for his legacy; all -- or at least the vast majority -- of the Democratic members he will ask to vote in favor of striking Syria are playing for the 2014 election. Those are two very different calculations -- especially when you consider that many of the Democrats Obama will need are running in districts where the only real threat is from their ideological left. Voting for a controversial military action is perfect fodder for a liberal challenger looking for an issue to take down a Democratic incumbent.

Third, Obama's relationship with Congress -- including those within his party -- has never been all that great. He spent little time there during his own career and Democratic House strategists have long believed that Obama is semi-openly disdainful of the people's House. And, having a long-time Senate aide -- Denis McDonough -- as his chief of staff won't help Obama much in the House either. (The perfect chief of staff for this moment in the House is currently serving as the mayor of Chicago.)

Fourth, the shadow of Iraq looms. You can tell how much by listening to Secretary of State John Kerry make the case for action in Syria on Friday. "Our intelligence community has carefully reviewed and re-reviewed information regarding this attack," Kerry said. "And I will tell you it has done so more than mindful of the Iraq experience. We will not repeat that moment." The question is whether Kerry's testimony in front of House and Senate committees this week can convince lawmakers of that fact. And, because of how Iraq (and the lack of WMDs) played out, the hurdle is that much higher.

Fifth, the "why now/what now" question remains a tough one to answer for many members. Yes, use of chemical weapons is a clear line that has been crossed. But, more than 120,000 Syrians have died since Obama first called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step aside, and most foreign policy experts believe any strikes launched by the United States will be extremely narrow in both their scope and length.

Despite all of those factors arguing against passage, Obama pushed forward for a vote, believing -- according to behind-the-scenes reporting done by The Post's Scott Wilson -- that if he end-ran Congress on this issue he might lose any chance to work with them on things like the looming government shutdown and the debt ceiling.

That makes sense if the resolution passes. But, if it fails and Obama goes forward with a military action anyway -- as Administration officials have made quite clear they believe he can and might do -- relations with Republicans in Congress (and, in truth, many Democrats) will be even more strained.

Republicans in Congress have long argued that the president is far more interested in using them as a political foil than in actually accomplishing things in a bipartisan matter. If he were to ignore a vote against the Syria resolution, the lack of trust that already exists between the GOP majority and the White House will disappear entirely -- almost certain to not return in time for the government shutdown/debt ceiling fights.

Add it all up and it's plain to see just how big a gamble Obama is taking -- and just how large the political stakes are for him if he loses.


After meeting with Obama, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Congress needs to authorize the use of military force against the Syrian government, or risk undermining the president's credibility and the credibility of the U.S.

Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel are scheduled to testify Tuesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) was aware of gifts and financial support provided by Jonnie R. Williams Sr. during the same months McDonnell and his wife took steps to help Williams's company.

Mary Cheney says her sister, Senate candidate Liz Cheney, is "dead wrong" to oppose gay marriage.

Republican Carl DeMaio will reportedly abandon his House bid to run for mayor of San Diego, though he said in an interview no decision has been made. He lost a competitive 2012 race against Bob Filner, who recently resigned amid mounting allegations of sexual harassment. DeMaio's decision tasks Republicans with finding a new candidate to run against Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.), a top GOP target. The special election to replace Filner will be Nov. 19.

A spokesman for former president George W. Bush apologized for mistakenly sending out a statement on the death of Nelson Mandela based on a Washington Post report that Mandela had been discharged from a hospital.

Brazil is not happy with revelations of U.S. surveillance of its president.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg became the first member of the Supreme Court to officiate a same-sex marriage ceremony.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) will stump for New Jersey Republican Senate candidate Steve Lonegan (R) on Sept. 13. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), with whom Paul has feuded, has also been invited, but will not attend due to a scheduling conflict.

On Twitter, Obama and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton congratulated Diana Nyad on her record-setting swim from Cuba to Florida.

When it came to expensive gifts from foreign leaders last year, Clinton topped Obama.


"On Syria strike, Obama administration ramps up pressure on Congress, shows flexibility" -- Karen Tumulty and Anne Gearan, Washington Post

"Syria: What to expect on Capitol Hill this week" -- Ed O'Keefe, Washington Post

"Top-secret U.S. intelligence files show new levels of distrust of Pakistan" -- Greg Miller, Craig Whitlock and Barton Gellman, Washington Post

"9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask" -- Max Fisher, Washington Post

"5 questions for Chuck Hagel and John Kerry" -- Philip Ewing, Politico

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Get Zika news by email

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Show Comments
Republicans debated Saturday night. The South Carolina GOP primary and the Nevada Democratic caucuses are next on Feb. 20. Get caught up on the race.
The Post's Dan Balz says...
Rarely has the division between Trump and party elites been more apparent. Trump trashed one of the most revered families in Republican politics and made a bet that standing his ground is better than backing down. Drawing boos from the audience, Trump did not flinch. But whether he will be punished or rewarded by voters was the unanswerable question.
GOP candidates react to Justice Scalia's death
I don't know how he knows what I said on Univision because he doesn't speak Spanish.
Sen. Marco Rubio, attacking Sen. Ted Cruz in Saturday night's very heated GOP debate in South Carolina. Soon after, Cruz went on a tirade in Spanish.
The Fix asks The State's political reporter where the most important region of the state is.
The State's Andy Shain says he could talk about Charleston, which represents a little bit of everything the state has to offer from evangelicals to libertarians, and where Ted Cruz is raising more money than anywhere else. In a twist, Marco Rubio is drawing strong financial support from more socially conservative Upstate. That said, Donald Trump is bursting all the conventional wisdom in the state. So maybe the better answer to this question is, "Wherever Trump is."
Past South Carolina GOP primary winners
South Carolina polling averages
Donald Trump leads in the first state in the South to vote, where he faces rivals Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
South Carolina polling averages
The S.C. Democratic primary is Feb. 27. Clinton has a significant lead in the state, whose primary falls one week after the party's Nevada caucuses.
62% 33%
The complicated upcoming voting schedule
Feb. 20

Democrats caucus in Nevada; Republicans hold a primary in South Carolina.

Feb. 23

Republicans caucus in Nevada.

Feb. 27

Democrats hold a primary in South Carolina.

Upcoming debates
Feb 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

March 3: GOP debate

on Fox News, in Detroit, Mich.

March 6: Democratic debate

on CNN, in Flint, Mich.

Campaign 2016
Where the race stands
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Close video player
Now Playing

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.