- - Tuesday, September 3, 2013

President Obama’s decision to seek Congress‘ approval for a limited, punitive missile strike in Syria is a high-stakes gamble that could further weaken his troubled presidency at home and abroad.

He surprised his national security team last week when he announced he would seek a time-consuming House and Senate vote of approval first, a process that will delay any action for at least two weeks. Obviously, the element of surprise is not in this administration’s military rule book.

That will give Syrian dictator Bashar Assad more time to move critical military materials and weaponry, step up his brutal attacks on rebel strongholds and plan some kind of counterassault. There were reports Mr. Assad has moved missile launchers and other weapons into highly populated residential areas where they will be safe from U.S. cruise-missile strikes. On Sunday, his regime publicly mocked Mr. Obama’s public “prevaricating,” which Syria’s state-run newspaper described as “the start of the historic American retreat.”

Even more dangerous for the president is the risk of a very embarrassing rejection in either chamber, or a very close vote, wasting precious political capital on Capitol Hill that he will need for future legislative battles. Among them: the budget and debt-ceiling bills.

The congressional terrain on both sides of the political aisle is deeply divided over getting the United States involved in Syria’s bloody civil war. Many were openly voicing doubts about its impact and outcome, while others questioned the president’s limited military objectives and even his motives.

Mr. Obama warned Mr. Assad a year ago that any use of deadly chemical weapons in the war would cross a “red line” that would lead to military retribution. There is little doubt that the nerve gas sarin was used by Mr. Assad’s military to kill innocent civilians in Damascus’ suburbs and elsewhere. U.S. intelligence surveillance shows Mr. Assad gave the green light to use such weapons as rebels drew closer to Syria’s capital.

No sooner had Mr. Obama announced his intentions to wage a limited attack and began briefing lawmakers over the weekend than his plan came under a wave of criticism and growing doubts from Capitol Hill. While congressional approval may face a slightly better chance in the Democrat-run Senate than the Republican House, neither chamber was a safe bet. There’s a sizable anti-war caucus among the Democrats and a number of like-minded libertarian-leaning Republicans whose military motto is “beware of foreign entanglements.”

Defense hawks such as Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina criticized the idea of a short-term attack on Mr. Assad’s military centers. They want a sustained U.S. effort to support the rebellion over the long term.

Meantime, a growing number of lawmakers questioned whether Mr. Assad’s heinous use of poison gas posed a real threat to America’s national security. Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, said the nation was weary of war and did not want to enter another one: “After over a decade of war in the Middle East, there needs to be compelling evidence that there is an imminent threat to the security of the American people or our allies before any military action is taken. I do not believe that this situation meets that threshold.”

GOP conservatives were raising troubling questions about the aftermath of even a limited U.S. strike. Wouldn’t that give the terrorists a rallying cry and recruiting tools in the Middle East, especially in Syria, and bolster its most radical elements?

Mr. Obama’s speech “leaves many questions, such as, who exactly are the ‘good guys’ in this conflict? And how is American involvement not the fuel for the fire the Muslim Brotherhood and extremists are trying to ignite throughout the region? Cruise missiles are not a strategy,” said Rep. Robert B. Aderholt, Alabama Republican.

Others wondered if Mr. Obama, after long deliberation, felt compelled to go it alone because he had already declared that any chemical warfare would cross his “red line.” Was he just trying to save face in this latest confrontation with Mr. Assad?

House and Senate leaders weren’t planning to lobby their members prior to a vote, letting each decide the issue for themselves. There was relatively little evidence that rank-and-file Republicans in either body had any desire to give Mr. Obama the authorization he seeks. “I think it’s going to be a very tough sell,” said Rep. Tom Cole, Oklahoma Republican.

More than 80 lawmakers flew back to Washington over the weekend to attend a classified White House briefing in the Capitol. Congress isn’t set to officially return from its monthlong recess until Monday. Mr. Obama maintains this is a question of national security and that Syria’s use of chemical weapons represents an imminent threat to the United States and our allies. However, his decision to delay action for two weeks or more sent this message to Mr. Assad: Don’t worry; we’re in no hurry to act.

In the interim, the White House is having trouble writing its war resolution, which would grant Mr. Obama authority to use force in Syria “as he determines to be necessary and appropriate.” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, told reporters the wording is much too vague and won’t pass Congress as written.

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