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Obama’s Syria Blunder

With his solitary, last-minute decision to ask Congress for authorization in advance for any military strikes on Syria–taken against the advice of his senior advisors–President Obama has set himself up for the biggest failure of his presidency, one that could haunt the United States for years to come.

Perhaps Obama figured that he would get easy approval from Congress–although why he thought the House, which has been growing increasingly isolationist, would go along with the strikes is a mystery. And indeed the publicly available evidence of House members’ voting intentions shows scant support for the Syria strikes. So far 118 House members have come out publicly against the strikes; only 25 have come out in favor of them. The Washington Post reports that another 119 are “leaning” against the resolution.

There is still time to change minds and to twist arms. Perhaps the president’s speech on Tuesday will mark a turnaround on the Hill. But the trend seems to be running against the White House with public-opinion polls indicating growing popular opposition that has been expressed in a deluge of calls, emails, letters, and oral comments to members of Congress. The Senate is still likely to approve action, but the odds are growing that the House won’t. And if the House doesn’t go along it will, as a practical political matter, be virtually impossible for Obama to order strikes anyway.

The result if the U.S. does nothing: Bashar Assad will get away with the most significant use of chemical weapons since Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds in 1988. This, in turn, will send a signal to weapons proliferators such as North Korea and Iran that the U.S. lacks the will to stop them. Any hopes of a negotiated stop to the Iranian nuclear program–admittedly slim to begin with–will disappear altogether. Israel will be left standing alone against the Iranians and their Hezbollah proxies. The opposition in Syria will suffer a substantial blow and Assad may well be emboldened to employ sarin gas again.

Beyond the Middle East, a failure to back up the president’s threats regarding the “red line” will be read–correctly, I fear–as proof that America is retreating from its global responsibilities, a development which will dismay allies from Taiwan to Poland, gladden rivals such as China and Russia, and cause American influence to plummet.

On the home front, meanwhile, Obama will be seen as a lame-duck president with the defeat shadowing his entire second term.

All this because Obama chose to do something he repeatedly stressed he didn’t need to do–ask Congress for approval for airstrikes of the kind that previous presidents from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton routinely launched without asking for Congress’s approval in advance. Indeed the War Powers Act gives the president 90 days to seek congressional approval; it doesn’t require approval in advance. As a practical matter presidents only ask for such approval when they are contemplating the use of ground forces for a major campaign–e.g., in the Gulf War of 1991 or the Iraq War of 2003.

It would take a psychologist to unravel what the president was thinking in making this monumental blunder. I am still not convinced by those who claim he is consciously trying to diminish American power, because if the U.S. is less powerful so is our president. But even if he has no such conscious design, Obama’s actions are definitely leading in the direction of a diminished superpower–one that will be increasingly derided, not respected, on the world stage.


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