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The Politics of the Dueling Syria Resolutions

“Of all the unexpected turns in the Syria debate,” Politico intones this morning, “one stands out most: The GOP, the party of a muscular national defense, has gone the way of the dove.” Every word of that lead sentence is debatable: doubt about an unpopular war should not be unexpected, for example, and some hawks are skeptical about the Syria strikes because they are not considered robust enough–a strange basis on which to label them doves.

Additionally, some conservatives are put off by the president’s suggestion that he may act without congressional approval anyway, giving skeptics a free “no” vote while at the same time casting doubt on the president’s willingness to adhere to what these members of Congress see as the constitutionally appropriate line of action, making them even less inclined to green-light a Syria strike. Nonetheless, even if the characterization of the GOP as having “gone the way of the dove” is a bit exaggerated, it’s true that some right-of-center politicians are leaning on dovish rhetoric and tactics to derail the president’s proposed military action in Syria.

One of those politicians is California Republican Congressman Devin Nunes, who along with Democratic Senator Joe Manchin is preparing a congressional resolution as an alternative to the one supported by President Obama. The Washington Examiner’s David Drucker reported over the weekend:

Rather than grant Obama authority to launch a military strike against Syria — as other proposed resolutions would do — the Manchin-Nunes resolution would direct the administration to redouble its diplomatic efforts to convince Syria to forgo future use of weapons of mass destruction. Is also would require the White House to submit to lawmakers within 45 days a long-term strategy for dealing with the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad….

The Manchin-Nunes resolution is an attempt to satisfy Republicans and anti-war Democrats who oppose Obama’s war resolution but are uncomfortable allowing Syria to get away with using weapons of mass destruction with impunity. Manchin and Nunes have been working on similar resolutions separately, but started hammering out the final alternative proposal over the last few days.

This is one of two alternative resolutions Manchin is shopping around. The joint proposal he is developing with Nunes is based in part on a separate alternative he authored with Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., which would give Syria 45 days to sign an international chemical weapons ban.

The administration has been trying the diplomatic tack for two and a half years, in which time the Syrian civil war has gone from bad to worse, with more than 100,000 casualties and of course the recent chemical-weapons atrocity. Where would this new round of diplomacy take place? The UN Security Council has been ineffective on this because of Russia’s veto. Diplomatic summits have been proposed, but keep falling apart because Assad and the Russians/Iranians keep improving their prospects while the rebels fragment, weaken, and radicalize more as time goes by.

Why would Bashar al-Assad even sign a chemical-weapons ban other than because he has no intention of abiding by it? Diplomacy has gone virtually nowhere, and this particular resolution would not seem to carry the threat of force after the 45-day delay. It would seem, in fact, to mirror the kind of diplomatic tire-spinning Republicans have been so critical of with regard to Iran, only without the credible threat of force behind it and after the murderous regime has already proven willing to use the weapons in question.

But the Manchin-Nunes resolution should be watched not only to see how much GOP support it gets but also because it offers the president a way out of the corner into which he’s painted himself. When President Obama said he didn’t actually need congressional approval for limited strikes, he was almost certainly hedging his bets. He was about to take unpopular military action, and wanted Congress and the opposition party on the hook for it too.

He also knew he might lose the authorization vote, at least in the GOP-led House. (Manchin’s resolution will test whether the authorization would be in trouble in the Democratic-controlled Senate too.) He wanted to make the public aware that he might not do as Congress instructed him, as a way of managing expectations and devaluing congressional input on the issue. Yet even Democratic commentators on the Sunday political talk shows suggested the president can’t go it alone on Syria.

The message inherent in the Manchin-Nunes resolution is that this is a military action with no real support among the public or in either party’s congressional delegations (though it should be noted that Republican hawks in the Senate are trying to build support for it), and over which it is certainly not worth provoking a major battle between the legislative and executive branches. The Manchin-Nunes resolution (and similar efforts) may be intended to enable the president to save face without striking Syria. Whether Obama sees it that way or as an affront to his authority that undermines his belated outreach to Congress will reveal just how invested is the president in his own call to arms.