Say What?

Why Obama’s I-Might-Bomb-Syria-Anyway Stance Could Backfire

The president was right to take a Syria vote to Congress. But why then say he might attack even without lawmakers’ approval? Michael Tomasky on Obama’s unwise rhetoric.

Michael Dwyer/AP

Far and away, the single most confusing thing about Barack Obama’s confusing Syria policy is the claim that the administration can and maybe will proceed with the bombing even if Congress votes against it. For the time being, I’ll hold my fire on the substance of the matter. Let’s wait and see what happens. Who knows? The House could defy my expectations and approve a resolution (the Senate almost surely will). But for now I’m stuck wondering why on earth, even if they do believe it, they would say it publicly. Very hard to see how that does anything other than weaken the administration’s hand.

I would imagine that at least half of you, on reading that last sentence, immediately thought to yourself, but no, it doesn’t weaken his hand; it gives him the excuse he’s looking for not to do anything. I know a lot of people think that. I don’t. I think Obama is serious about the international norm of standing against the use of chemical weapons. In his two major public statements on this, he looked pretty mad, I thought. Not as mad as he looked after the Senate’s craven gun-control vote. But mad. And I think he knows that having said “red line,” he has to enforce it. So I think he is intellectually and emotionally inclined to take military action.

All right, you say, then why go to Congress? I chalk this up to what we might call “calculated principle.” That is, I do have little doubt that deep down, Obama knew that going to Congress was the right thing to do. That’s the principle part. But politicians act on principle only when it harmonizes with certain interests. The big interest here is that Congress’s imprimatur is the people’s. Obama no doubt saw that poll showing that 79 percent of Americans thought he should go to Congress. Presidents don’t like launching military actions that four out of five Americans are against. So if they vote yes and agree to make this their action (I think it’s a little overdramatic just yet to use the word “war”) as well as Obama’s, that makes it a little harder for them to pick at him.

So up to this point, I can understand. There are a hundred things he might have done differently, sure. But up to this point, everything can at least be defended or rationalized.

But he lost me with the insistence that it doesn’t matter what Congress says. As I said, we can hold off on discussing the legitimacy and the implications of such a move until such time as he actually makes it. But for now, let’s just think about it strategically.

Imagine yourself a conservative Republican member of Congress hearing Obama and his men say this. Let’s say you don’t really care about Syria one way or the other, don’t care much about foreign policy; you were elected, as so many of these rowdies were, to destroy the federal government and oppose Barack Obama.

If you hear Obama and John Kerry and others say they just might go ahead anyway, you’re going to think to yourself: Well then, why the heck should I vote yes? A, I don’t catch holy hell from the folks back home for supporting Obama. B, if enough of us vote like me and he loses a big one, that maybe weakens him overall. C, let him go ahead and do it after we’ve said no; we’ll raise the roof and maybe even be able to impeach the guy. What’s not to like?

Now imagine yourself a very liberal Democrat, one of the 40 or so most liberal, say. You come from a district where the emails and calls are running “No Way in Syria!” by 8 or 9 to 1. You don’t like the fact that you have to vote on this now to begin with—the fewer votes you have to cast the better as a general rule, to say nothing of big spotlight votes like this one. But even given that, you’d like to give the president your support if you think you can get away with it back home. But if he’s going to do what he wants to do anyway, you think, why should I stick my neck out?

So I think this posture invites an avalanche of no votes. Obama and Kerry should have just used very oblique language suggesting that in the event of a congressional defeat, they’d reassess the situation or something like that. A posture such as that would at least let members of Congress know that their votes here really matter.

It’ll be interesting to see how Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel handle this issue Tuesday morning at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Somebody, and it might well be a Democrat, is going to ask them pointedly why they’re bothering with this congressional dance at all. They’d better have good answers about why Congress matters. They’re both former senators themselves, of course, so presumably they understand that flattery will get them everywhere. But of course it’s really House members whom Kerry, Hagel, and Obama are going to have to persuade. Saying publicly and repeatedly that they might not listen to Congress anyway is an awfully strange way to start that.