The first rule for President Obama: It’s all about 2014. The second rule for President Obama: See Rule No. 1.
Make no mistake: The president couldn’t care less about the plight of Syrians, the 1,500 gassed to death — including nearly 500 children. It’s all about 2014. Win the House, reign supreme.
Consider this: Mr. Obama made his dramatic Rose Garden statement Saturday — then headed to the golf course. Congress has no plans to cut short its 30-day vacation, and the president did not call lawmakers back. So much for urgency.
The conventional wisdom is, as usual, wrong. Losing the congressional vote won’t be an embarrassment for the president, as all the talking heads are still parroting. A loss would be a double win. First, because a “No” vote would allow the foreign policy neophyte to walk away from his blundering “red line” declaration on chemical weapons (“I wanted to go in, but Congress said no”). And second, should Republicans who voted for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars now oppose Syria, the president would be armed with clear “evidence” that their opposition is purely political.
Keep in mind: This president knows no way to campaign other than to blame others. He’ll batter Republicans for all of 2014 as obstructionists should they be the reason the effort fails.
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But the bloviating politicos are also wrong that the “Republican-controlled House” could reject the plan for partisan reasons. It is Democrats who seem most squeamish — and they were the most vocal in demanding their say before intervention in Syria. Remember, two years ago, as the president prepared to bomb Libya, 70 Democrats joined Republicans in voting against military operations. Mr. Obama bombed anyway.
Still, the entire fiasco has been hard to watch, “Amateur Hour” indeed. The president declares a “red line,” then sees the Syrian dictator cross it again and again. The Nobel Peace Prize winner declares he’ll take America to war — but only then does he seek partners and only to find a “Coalition of the Unwilling.” The United Nations says no, the Arab League says no, China and Russia say no — even the United Kingdom says no (mainly because Brits did not want to have another U.S.-led war jammed down their throats).
Back home, polls find 80 percent of Americans want Congress to decide, and nearly half oppose intervention. So the president — hoping to appear magnanimous — declares he’ll seek authorization (read: share the blame).
Still, the president and his secretary of state are absolutely right. “The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity,” John F. Kerry said. Mr. Obama, in his most powerful passage, said: “Here’s my question for every member of Congress and every member of the global community: What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?”
Of course a firm response is the correct action. And Mr. Obama doesn’t need authority to do so in Syria, just as he didn’t in Libya. While Republican support on the Hill now would help Mr. Obama save face after his “red line” throw-down, striking Syria with a few cruise missiles — however fleeting and ineffectual that would be to the course of its 2-year-old civil war — also would send a signal to the real target: Iran. That’s why, most likely, Republicans will support the president after rewriting the White House’s draft resolution.
Now, it is up to Mr. Obama’s own party: Does he still hold sway over Democrats? Will they bend to his will? Many already seem to be running for the hills. And if they don’t, will the president have the temerity to order strikes anyway?
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Whatever happens, this much is clear: We’re no longer talking about the IRS targeting tea party groups, the Justice Department tapping reporters’ phone lines, the NSA’s surveillance programs, Benghazi. The president has smartly changed the subject to the most important decision a commander in chief makes: war.
And the most presidential. That, he knows, will play better in the midterm elections, whichever way Congress votes.
• Joseph Curl covered the White House and politics for a decade for The Washington Times and is now editor of the Drudge Report. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @josephcurl.