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Why the Syria Resolution Remains Vague

The Obama administration has over the last week made its case for military action in Syria both publicly to the American people and privately to members of Congress. Today, the administration fused the two by sending top Cabinet officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, to publicly implore the Senate to support strikes on Syria. But one of the curious aspects of this plea is that it remains unclear what, exactly, Congress would be authorizing.

The administration wants to strike at Assad for stepping over President Obama’s chemical-weapons red line. But he doesn’t intend to topple Assad or specifically help the rebels–indeed, as the Wall Street Journal reports, the administration clearly has cold feet about its previous promises to arm the rebels. That is reasonable–the rebel factions have become increasingly characterized and led by extremist elements. But it is creating some confusion as to the goal of this proposed military action in Syria. In terms of getting congressional authorization, the administration has two options. The two are very different, however, both in their execution and in what they will tell us about American partisan politics.

The president is not interested in ordering a ground invasion into Syria, and the Congress has no interest in approving one. But aside from that, it may not get any clearer before the resolution goes before Congress. That’s because the president wants the resolution to pass more than he cares about the details of it–within certain parameters, of course. So option No. 1 is to lob essentially a blank page at Congress and, through committee drafts and accepted amendments, let the members of Congress who support military action against Syria steer the resolution through the House and Senate.

The advantages to this strategy are obvious: if the president loses the vote, as did the British prime minister, it will be a colossal embarrassment. Passing something avoids the agony of defeat. Since President Obama knows that Congress won’t hand him back an authorization for a ground war in Syria, he doesn’t have much to lose, but plenty to gain: he will have bipartisan buy-in for whatever action he ends up commanding, sparing him further political isolation.

In this scenario, he gets most of the credit, as presidents usually do, if the mission is deemed a success. After all, he was the one who set the red line and pushed for action. And while he’ll also shoulder the lion’s share of the blame should it go sour–again, he set the red line–he can argue not only that both parties and the two immediately relevant branches of government stood behind the act, but that Congress pretty much wrote the resolution.

Additionally, he gets the benefit (at least as supporters of action in Syria will see it) of getting assistance and guidance from congressional hawks in the guise of honoring the separation of powers and deferring to congressional consent. Since Obama has indicated that he is motivated at least in part by a desire to save face here, the process is important to him.

There is another aspect of Obama’s decision on the resolution to consider, and it is potentially far more interesting. If Obama lets Congress decide the wording and extent of the authorization of the use of force in Syria, it will be greatly influenced by the Republicans he needs on board. That means the next round of “GOP civil war” stories will be just around the bend. Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, and any others vying to lead their party going forward will have to do more than just vote on the resolution. They will debate the future of the party’s foreign policy, at least in the near term. The resolution that emerges from the process will be, to some degree, a statement of GOP priorities with regard to foreign affairs.

If instead the president retains control over the wording of the resolution, then Congress will be debating the Obama Doctrine. The president will get his up-or-down vote on it, but he’ll own the final product and will saddle his potential Democratic successors with it. That is the riskier, and therefore less likely, route for the president and his party. But the president is still taking a risk by leaving it up to Congress to map out the details, because the split could produce a resolution that is more activist in its military response and therefore less likely to pass in the end.

It’s doubtful many in the GOP saw this coming, but a casual threat about a red line from a Democratic president may end up spurring the formation of the current Republican Party’s foreign-policy identity. If that’s the case, this debate will have implications far beyond Syria.



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