President Obama says the U.S. will take military action against Syria, but only with Congress’s approval. (Sandi Moynihan/The Washington Post)

President Obama has put his and the nation’s credibility at stake with his call for congressional authorization to launch a military strike against Syria. But the coming debate also provides an early and important test for any Republican contemplating a campaign for the White House in 2016.

Whether serving in Congress or not, prospective GOP presidential candidates will be pressed to answer whether they agree with Obama about the need to retaliate militarily against Syria for its alleged chemical weapons attack and, if not, whether any response is required.

The answers to these and the other questions that will arise with regard to Syrian policy will begin to define areas of agreement and disagreement in a Republican Party whose foreign policy consensus has been frayed by a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the emergence of new voices within the party.

As others have learned from past debates about using military force, there are potentially serious political consequences later to the words said and votes taken now. None of these politicians can know now how their actions will be judged in two or three years. Inevitably, some will then find themselves on the wrong side of public opinion, whether among GOP primary voters or the electorate at large.

Former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2002 vote as a senator to authorize the invasion of Iraq, which seemed relatively safe at the time, proved enormously costly when she sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. Her support provided Obama, who had opposed the war, an opening to grass-roots liberal activists.

Obama’s stuttering week, in which he surprised his own advisers and the rest of the world by putting seemingly imminent military action on hold and calling for congressional approval, has focused renewed attention on his leadership — which is why he has so much to lose if he is rebuffed.

The coming debate in Congress will provide Obama with an opportunity not just to argue for a limited strike — a “shot across the bow” of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as he put it in an interview on PBS’s “NewsHour” last week — but also to provide greater clarity to the administration’s overall Syrian strategy.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry has been the administration’s most forceful advocate for retaliation over the alleged Aug. 21 sarin gas attack, as he demonstrated with a speech Friday and again Sunday while making the rounds of the morning talk shows, but that is a role rightly reserved for a president at moments like this. Obama’s Saturday statement in the Rose Garden presumably was a beginning, not an ending.

As Obama makes that case, how will Republicans, particularly those with presidential aspirations, respond? There are a variety of questions for them to answer. Do they support military action as retaliation for the recent attack? Do they accept the evidence of the use of chemical weapons or doubt U.S. and other intelligence findings? Do they think the limited military action under consideration would be insufficient and therefore unwise? If that is the case, what kind of military action do they favor? Do they oppose all military intervention in Syria? If so, what would an effective strategy be toward Syria?

There are other questions: Do the Republicans support the administration’s resolution as written, or would they advocate amending it? If they are critical of the administration’s general strategy on Syria, what approach would they recommend? What precedent do they think military action, or inaction, would set for future uses of chemical weapons by Assad or others?

The debate comes at a time of shifting sentiments and even role reversals. The Democratic Party was long saddled with criticism that its leaders were soft on defense. Republicans were the party of muscularity in foreign policy. Now, a president who won office in part by promising to end wars and who has been criticized for weak leadership by his political opponents is leading the call for military action, while Republicans, at least some, are hesitating.

Some Republicans may oppose the president simply because they are opposed to the president. But that does not constitute a foreign or national security policy. The Republican Party now is divided among those in the neoconservative wing who led the call for invading Iraq and who continue to argue in favor of more robust action in Syria; those in the libertarian wing who want the United States generally to stay out any conflicts; and those in the middle who see a need for U.S. leadership but are tempered by public weariness with war.

Fissures within the Republican coalition broke into public view this summer over the question of surveillance vs. civil liberties, sparked by the leaks from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) attacked Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and other libertarians for tilting too far in the direction of protecting civil liberties. Similar divisions are likely to be exposed in the coming debate between those who favor military action in Syria and those who do not.

So far, most of the prospective GOP candidates in Congress have resisted making any definitive statements about where they stand on the president’s latest move.

Paul praised the president for taking the issue to Congress, but on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday he said he thinks that “it’s a mistake to get involved in the Syrian civil war.” He added, “If Congress votes this down, we should not be involved in the Syrian war. And I think it’s at least 50-50 whether the House will vote down involvement in the Syrian war.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said military action “taken simply to send a message or save face” does not meet his standard of using military force only when there are “clear and attainable” national security goals. He also wrote last week that failing to act would “further embolden Assad . . . leaving the impression that the United States is feckless and weak.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said he was glad Obama listened to calls from Republicans and Democrats to put the issue before Congress, but he offered no signal about the substance of the case. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee, has been silent, as have other prospective candidates who are not serving in Congress but are eyeing 2016 campaigns.

Prudence argues for careful statements as Congress remains in recess. But in putting his own presidency at stake by calling for a congressional debate about the use of force, Obama has put Republicans on notice that they too must declare exactly where they stand.

For previous columns by Dan Balz,
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