Now that President Obama has turned to Congress for authorization to launch punitive military strikes against the Syrian government for using chemical weapons, can he get it?
As a former Defense secretary might have said, the answer to that question is a known unknown. That’s especially true in a GOP-led House that’s typically opposed to the president. The chances are better in the Senate with its Democratic majority.
What is known, however, is that the president’s decision means that many in the House and Senate will be forced to cast very tough votes for or against a U.S. military strike.
For those lawmakers with their doubts about Obama, the policy, or both, Obama tried to frame his case for military action as an urgent matter of national security and U.S. credibility.
While the regime of Syrian strongman Bashar Assad is the main target of U.S. military action, the president urged lawmakers to think beyond Syria. He didn’t mention Iran and North Korea, with their nuclear devices (or aspirations), by name. But those were clearly nations he wanted Congress to keep in mind in the coming days as it deliberates.
Obama’s argument, put another way, was that a vote against authorizing strikes on Syria puts the U.S. and the world at risk. It’s worth noting that Congress will be taking up the Syria debate around the 12th anniversary of 9/11.
While Congress is hyper-polarized, what makes the Syria debate in the House so hard to predict is the way it cuts across the red-blue divide.
House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Rogers, R-Mich., and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., support U.S. military action against Syria. And Rogers issued a statement Saturday after Obama spoke that could bring some House Republican fence sitters over to the president’s side by giving them some degree of cover:
“For two years, the Iranian-backed Syrian regime has been free to engage in the slaughter of its own people with little but rhetorical responses from the United States. Now that the regime has crossed our red line regarding the use of chemical weapons, we must carefully consider whether the credibility of the United States necessitates military action to enforce that position. We must also consider what message a failure to act would send to other adversaries and our allies around the world.”
Note how Rogers doesn’t say it’s Obama’s, but rather “our red line.”
Something to watch will be how House Republicans from the most anti-Obama congressional districts, and those who are most closely linked to the Tea Party, will respond to the debate. Some of them argued most strenuously that the Constitution requires congressional approval of military action of the sort Obama contemplated. By submitting his planned Syria strike to Congress, Obama removed that issue from the table.
It’s possible that Obama could get support in the Senate, but not the House, for action against Syria. President Bill Clinton got such a split in 1999 when he sought authorization to attack the Serbian military in Kosovo. Clinton ordered the military to launch strikes anyway, alongside the U.S.’s NATO allies.
Presidents George H.W. Bush got authorization from both the House and Senate for the first Iraq War in 1990 and George W. Bush got congressional authorization for the Afghanistan War in 2001 and the second Iraq War in 2003.
But Congress was different for both presidents Bush. The Democrats had more hawks and the Republicans had more moderates.
The first president Bush had also adroitly assembled an international coalition and the U.N. to authorize forcing Iraq out of Kuwait. Meanwhile, the congressional authorizations for Afghanistan and Iraq came while 9/11 still reverberated strongly across the nation. That the horror happened on U.S. soil, not somewhere in the Middle East, made Congress much readier than now to authorize the use of U.S. military force.