hardline political news and analysis

Month: September, 2013

Boehner’s Choice

Washington and the nation are watching in wonder to see how House Republicans will climb out of the very deep and perilous hole they have studiously dug and jumped into.  Once again, America is on the brink of a self-inflicted economic and diplomatic embarrassment because House Republican leaders cannot control their hardline Orwellians for whom defeat is victory, and collapse is constructive.  To honor this congressional clumsiness by calling it a “train wreck unfolding in slow motion” is to ignore the fact that sitting in the locomotive, opening up the throttle,  are the very same people who tore up the track.

Congress likes to resolve legislative impasses at the last moment.  For generations, congressional combatants drove close to the cliff to demonstrate their own fearlessness and to test the resolve of their adversaries.  But everyone knew (or was pretty sure) there was a mutual interest in turning away from the cliff at the last moment to avoid the abyss.  It doesn’t always work that way anymore. 

Over the past two House election cycles, a new breed of legislator has infiltrated the Republican ranks, hardline ideologues who not only dislike the policies and programs of modern American society, but who have taken Ronald Reagan at his word: government is the problem. They welcome any opportunity to grab the steering wheel and plunge off the cliff.  For them, and their extremist base, there is nothing to fear from a government shutdown or defaulting on the national debt, because such debacles confirm the failure of government.  They are self-fulfilling fatalists, and they have the Republican Party firmly by the throat. 

The good news is that they may have just lit the first flickers of responsibility in what used to be considered the “mainstream” of the Republican party that’s been missing in action of late.  Sen. Bob Corker’s dust-up on the floor with Sen. Ted Cruz on Thursday provided one of the faint glimmers of hope that someone in the GOP retains a shred of responsibility, let alone interest in winning elections in any but the reddest of red districts. 

House Republicans are still firmly in the grip of the hardliners, and neither Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, nor anyone else in the leadership seems to know how to tame their passion for the legislative apocalypse.  These leaders are either befuddled or intimidated by their extreme wing.  “Gone are the days when the leaders decide what the conference is gonna do,” declares Rep. Lynn Jenkins (Kan) — and she is Vice Chair of the House Republican Conference.  With team players like that, you hardly need Democrats.

It shouldn’t be surprising that people who actually know how the economy works are a bit worried about who’s making decisions in the Republican House.  Republicans used to listen to corporate leaders who understand the precarious nature of the current recovery and are pleading with congressional Republicans to steer away from the cliff.  “Engage in whatever political machinations you wish, but do not default,” said Honeywell International’s Chief Executive David Cote. “Don’t throw away a credit history built up since George Washington.” Paul Stebbins, chairman of World Fuel Services, warns that the current  “dysfunction is doing deep damage to the country and to the world’s perception of us” and terms it “reckless … to hold the whole country hostage because you don’t like a law.”  Richard Hunt of the Consumer Bankers Association, hopes the “adults in both parties” will fashion an agreement.

The non-adults are ably represented by Rep. John Fleming (R-LA), who dismisses the predictions of economic catastrophe, asserting “I don’t think we should run government based on economists’ predictions.”  Fleming sees no risk if the debt ceiling is not raised. “Technically, it’s not possible to default because there’s always enough revenue to cover the interest,” Fleming explains. “If we defaulted it was because the president chose to default, not because we ran out of money.”  Or something like that.

Few in Washington can figure out how House Republican leaders handle the final, delicate steps.  Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) assured recently, “We’ll worry about the Senate after the Senate actually does something.”  Well, time to start worrying, since the Senate has sent back to the House a resolution to keep the government open long enough to confront the debt ceiling crisis. 

The real question is the call by the House Republican leadership.  Speaker Boehner still has the bruises from the last time he went to the brink with President Obama and Democrats and ended up repealing the upper class tax cut.  Boehner is still hurling bromides like, “We’re not going to raise the debt ceiling without real cuts in spending,” pledging he will “do everything we can to repeal Obamacare.” 

He may do everything he can, but he isn’t going to repeal the ACA or force an equivalent level of spending cuts to offset a debt ceiling increase, since Congress has already approved over $2 trillion in discretionary cuts. 

Boehner cannot be having much fun these days.  Just before he assumed the Speaker’s chair in 2011, he acknowledged the eccentric extremists who enabled Republicans to win the majority would be a challenge to govern.  He privately predicted he would be more popular in 6 months among Democrats than among his own Conference.  Boehner is your old fashioned NFIB conservative, a small businessman motivated to enter politics because of high taxes and environmental regulations affecting his plastics business.  Banished from the leadership ladder in the late 1990s, he plunged into the substantive business of committee work as Chairman of the Committee on Education and the Workforce where he was a happy collaborator with leading liberals like Ted Kennedy and George Miller in writing labor and education law.  Following his elevation to Republican Leader, he actively participated with Speaker Nancy Pelosi in writing the first stimulus bill and the TARP bailout.  For a decade as Chairman and Leader, he was co-authoring precisely the kind of bills that fueled the Tea Party revolt against big government.  

Yet even in the white-knuckle TARP battle, which culminated five years ago this month, the seeds of Boehner’s current problems were evident.   In discussions with President Bush, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and various congressional leaders, Boehner warned that House Republicans would likely resist the emergency legislation.  Republicans balked both at the proposed cost of the TARP bill and the taxpayer safeguards Democrats insisted be added to Bush’s tissue-thin draft: restrictions on executive compensation, a ban on golden parachutes,  foreclosure forbearance, and a mandatory payback of all loans, with interest.  Despite warnings from Paulson and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke that the U.S. financial system was within days of implosion, Boehner proposed slowing the legislative process down, a suggestion swiftly rejected by Pelosi.

As the legislation was readied for the House floor, Boehner’s staff privately warned Republicans might not be able to deliver the 100 votes Boehner had pledged, and advised that Democrats might have to provide all the votes for passage.  Pelosi, facing Democratic protests that the proscriptions were too mild, knew there was no chance of passing the bill without Republican votes and urged Boehner and the White House to press his Conference hard.

Despite a tearful floor appeal to Republicans, during which he described the carefully written bill as a “crap sandwich,” Boehner was unable to move his obdurate members, winning just 65 Republican votes for his own President’s highest priority.  Privately, Bush admitted, “My problem is House Republicans.”   As the Dow Jones average plummeted an historic 778 points, the strategic advantage passed to the Senate which added $150 billion in business tax breaks, boosting the cost of the bill even further and complicating Pelosi’s job selling the bill to the Democrats.  When the House bowed to the urgency of the moment and passed the House bill, Boehner was still unable to deliver the 100 promised votes, coming in at just 91 while Pelosi drummed up enough Democrats to prevent a complete financial meltdown.

Whatever pragmatic tendencies Boehner had exhibited as chairman and Republican Leader evaporated instantaneously with the election of Barack Obama.  Unwilling to offer any support to Obama initiatives during the 2009-2010 period, Boehner found himself saddled with a dilemma when he became Speaker in 2011 thanks to the infusion of uncompromising Tea Party supporters.  With few exceptions, he was unable to pass essential legislation, including several Continuing Resolutions and a debt ceiling increase, without a substantial number of Democratic votes.  His Conference’s ambivalent decision to re-elect him as Speaker last January by just four votes further chilled his interest in seeking common ground with either Obama or congressional Democrats, but left him unable to formulate credible alternative policies.   He seemed to diminish his role as Speaker, asserting,  “I don’t need to be out there beating the drum every day… It doesn’t need the heavy hand of the speaker all over everything.” 

There is a need for serious adult leadership in the House Republican Conference as once again the nation skirts closely to a manufactured and eminently avoidable crisis.  Reliable Republican allies are losing confidence that Boehner’s team can produce results.  Nearly 240 business groups, including the Chamber of Commerce, recently send Congress a letter warning against the dire consequences of a failure to pass a Continuing Resolution by October 1.  The effect, the groups advised, “be economically disruptive and create even more uncertainties for the U.S. economy.”

Not satisfied with the prospects of a government shutdown, Boehner and the House Republicans also pledge to prevent a debt ceiling increase unless Obama and Democrats agree to a comparable reduction in spending (seemingly ignoring the $2 trillion in spending already cut in past compromises).  Boehner seems to understand the high stakes game he is playing.  He told Idaho Republicans last summer that his dollar for-dollar debt ceiling demand “may be unfair, but what I’m trying to do … to leverage the political process to produce more change than what it would produce if left to its own devices.” 

It would certainly produce “change.”  According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Republicans’ threat of a government default in 2011 cost taxpayers $1.3 billion in higher interest costs – and the 10 year cost of those bonds is nearly $19-billion, over eight times the size of the cuts agreed to in the last deal.  Even a short government shutdown next week would have dramatic ramifications – possibly worse than those in 1995 when at least some appropriations bills had safeguarded the budgets of a few federal departments.

What seems particularly incomprehensible is that Boehner and House Republicans refuse to accept their indisputable success in reorienting the focus of the federal government away from program creation and spending and toward budget cutting and deficit reduction.  The Republican Congress plowed through the second half of the Great Recession without a lick of concern for the jobless or those losing their homes; it passed massive spending reductions and an automatic decade of cuts through sequestration, sloppy though they may be.  True, they lost the upper income tax cut, which was unsustainable, but they delivered for their rich patrons by permanently extending and indexing the estate tax.  Spending is down; deficits are down. Obama’s domestic legislative policies are moribund at best. Why can’t the conservatives accept victory instead of plunging ahead into the chaos of shutdowns and default?

The reason is, of course, because the deficit was always a stalking horse for the hard right, a mechanism for elevating public concerns so they could cut taxes, fuel the growth of deficit, and thereby justify massive cuts in domestic programs. The enemy has never really been spending; it is government itself, which conservatives want to drown in the bathtub, starve of revenues or privatize.   Today, the goal is to leverage the financial security of the country to the impossible dream, repeal of Obamacare, although even the GOP House Conference Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers has acknowledged that is “probably not realistic.”

Boehner has to find a way to bring the extremists in his Conference under the control of the operational politicians.  It can be done, but there may well be a price.  That is often the case.  In the 1960s and 1970s, an increasingly liberal Democratic Caucus threw out hardline, southern conservatives who, thanks to seniority and one party districts, had retained their seats and therefore their chairmanships too long. Deposing them in a series of moves over several years, in combination with other demographic and political changes, winnowed down Democratic strength among moderates and conservatives.  Winning those marginal seats helped the Republicans secure the House in 1994. 

If Boehner or any “grown-up” Republican is to control the Republican Party, it is pretty clear what must be done, which is exactly what was done for most of the 112th Congress.  The GOP leaders, who lack sufficient votes in their own party, will have to go to Pelosi and other Democrats to cut a deal to pass appropriations bills and debt ceilings at reasonable levels.  They might be able to secure a few modest policy modifications that address legitimate problems but do not seek to undermine key Democratic policies.  But failure to do so will repeat the experience of TARP: the Senate will dictate the end product, and nobody in the House will like it very much.

In a GOP conference with a sizeable number of Tea Party extremists, taking such a rational course may well doom the Boehner Speakership and provoke a well-deserved fight within the Republican Conference about the future leadership and direction of the party.  But the alternative – presiding over an ungovernable group of extremists who have no interest in compromise or rational government – can’t be fulfilling and is deadly to the party. 

If, as Boehner mused before he even became Speaker, his unpopularity among Republicans makes his his job miserable, a bold step towards compromise might well prove a healthy move for his party and the governability of the country regardless of the personal cost.  Republicans don’t need many more analyses like GOP Chairman Reince Priebus’ March, 2013 “Autopsy Report” or “Grand Old Party for a Brand New Generation” by College Republicans which warned the party was alienating key constituencies at rates likely to jeopardize the future viability of the party.

There are worse things in politics than being a former Speaker.


The Spin on Syria

It is difficult to remember a foreign policy incident with as many frequent, unpredictable and confounding turns as the recent developments on the road (or at least the flight path) to Damascus.  Not only are the known events perplexing in their sequence and substance, but the pieces of the story that are currently classified – and may well be for some time – are bound to make the eventual explanation even more difficult to decipher.

But let’s try.  With the caveat that much of what follows may be completely inaccurate or unprovable within our lifetimes.

The initial challenge is to separate the wheat from the chaff, or rather, the truth from falsity (or exaggeration, or spin, or fabrication).  A key factor to keep in mind, however, is that everyone involved is likely telling you only what they want you to know, and what makes them look best.  There is much happening beneath the surface.  I say that not because I am privy to any private information, but because what is on the surface cannot possibly be the entire story.

President Obama’s critics have been having a difficult time (so has he, but more on that later).  On the one hand, some Republican legislators have been pushing for a punishing blow to teach Syria’s Assad a lesson for his illegal and inhumane use of chemical weapons (Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers, Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Cantor).  Other Republicans (Sen. John  McCain and Sen. Lindsay Graham) have called for even greater U.S. intervention in the form of massive aid to the Syrian rebels.  All of these Republicans fault Obama for failing to take aggressive action, even though they know there isn’t a chance a majority of Republicans would have voted to support such a decision.  Obama’s deal with Russian President Putin not only saved Assad from an immediate American strike, but saved Republicans from showing, once again (as though it were necessary) how unmovable are the rank and file members by the entreaties of their leaders.

Prior to Putin’s endorsement of international inspection and destruction of Syrian chemical weapons (which both Syria and Russia finally acknowledged do exist), I was skeptical of the public explanation for how events had unfolded.   Subsequent developments only confirm that suspicion.  What really happened during that supposedly impromptu discussion between Obama and Putin at the G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg?  Why did Obama continue to push the prospect of military intervention despite clear indications that the votes were not there in the House and possibly not even in the Senate?  And why did the bipartisan congressional leadership (other than the always contrarian Mitch McConnell) emerge from a post-G-20 meeting with the President to announce enthusiastic support for a strike they probably knew could not be sold to their members?

My suspicion is that Obama returned from the G-20 with something more than an  expectation that Putin would call on Assad to open Syria to inspectors and agree to destroy his chemical weapons.  If so, it was in Putin’s best interest to have the U.S. political leadership maintain support for a punitive attack with or without congressional authorization (the latter almost unthinkable if Congress were to vote no).  Putin paid no price politically for appearing to press Assad toward capitulation in the face of U.S. military retribution: he likely knew the Congress, and the world, would breathe a huge sigh of relief if any reason were given for Assad to give in.

Of course, Putin’s action was not driven by the U.S. threat (a nice storyline for the Administration, but highly unlikely) but by the foremost consideration in any politician’s mind: what’s in my best interest.  In Putin’s case, as in Obama’s, Assad’s use of chemical weapons probably crossed a red line by embarrassing Putin on the world stage for supporting a mass murderer who violated international agreements on weapons of mass destruction. Moreover, Putin may well be concerned that Assad is maintaining insufficient control over the WMDs and that, should the rebels gain an upper hand with or without U.S. military support, sarin and other horrific weapons could fall into the hands of militants who have plans for extending extremist disruption within Russia itself.

Putin had to find a way of ridding an undependable ally from using or losing his chemical weapons without simultaneously looking like he was walking away from his ally who provides him a crucial warm weather naval base.  Here, then was the making of a deal: no U.S. military strike, Russia strong arms Assad into giving up his WMDs, and Assad remains in power, at least temporarily while Russia buys international goodwill for whatever comes next, including retention of its naval base if Assad goes the way of other Middle Eastern strongmen of late.

Now it goes without saying that all parties involved would dismiss the idea of this scenario being pre-wired at the G-20.  However, it is inconceivable that we could move from an imminent votes to authorize a strike against Syria to an off-hand proposal (and immediate dismissal) of international confiscation from Secretary John Kerry to a Russian plan, to U.S. acceptance of a Russian plan within the space of a day or two.  It takes longer than that to agree on the seating chart at a state dinner.  Something was cooking in St. Petersburg, and it most assuredly wasn’t shashlik.  (Let it be noted that Kerry’s dismissal of his own inspection/confiscation plan and subsequent embracing of the Putin proposal unfortunately resembled a “for it before I was against it before I was for it” jitterbug that the former presidential nominee probably wishes he could have avoided.)

Now, it is true, President Obama does look like he was wandering around without much of a Syria strategy, although at the moment, it is possible he achieved his objectives without firing a shot.   Perhaps, to some extent, Putin did save the day (though only for Putin’s own self interest; he would have been happy to have Obama wander right into an international crisis in Syria).  Most problematically, Obama yet to make  a convincing case that Syria’s use of sarin gas presents a greater imminent threat to U.S. national security than, say, North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons.  That is not to say the evidence isn’t there, but if it is, the President simply never made the sale, at least not to the public.  Perhaps there is intelligence showing a planned Syrian threat to Turkey, a NATO member, or to Israel, which certainly would explain the legions of AIPAC members flooding Capitol Hill in support of action against Assad.  But to the mass of Americans, skeptical about military overreach, the immediacy of the threat did not exist, even though there was universal condemnation of Assad’s action.   Moreover, if there was truly international outrage at the violation of international law, it was decidedly tempered, which further diluted voters’ belief the Syrian action, however heinous, warranted unilateral U.S. retaliation.

Yet Obama deserves recognition for asking Congress for authorization to use force, even if he did so believing Congress would refuse (which seems unlikely).  More likely, he did not have a good read on the congressional response but wanted some company in the trenches should the bombs start dropping.  Surely if he wanted to build support for a strike, it was unwise to announce a future congressional vote while Members were in their districts, unable to receive classified briefings, and getting carpet bombed by constituents who were unpersuaded a third Middle East war was justified.  Still, future presidents will have a harder time taking unilateral action given Obama’s decision, which was consistent with his past statements about the desirability of seeking support from Congress for military action.  His decision to seek such a vote with respect to Syria, as contrasted to the unauthorized intervention in Libya, suggests the immediate danger of repeated sarin usage in Syria was not as great as may have been portrayed, allowing for time for a congressional debate.

Republican leaders may well have played along with the Obama-Putin strategy because they wished to avoid a congressional vote that would make them culpable for whatever emerges in Syria.  Unquestionably, their long term political target is not Obama or even Assad, but rather former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as noted in my prior blog on this subject.  Republicans, and potential Democratic challengers, are anything but coy about raising questions about Clinton’s record on Syria during her tenure at State, and will doubtless lay blame for any shortcoming in U.S. policy at her feet as well as Obama’s.  Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), a dependable Republican partisan, was careful to turn attention to Clinton during a Sunday appearance on CNN.   Sunday’s NY Times also jumped not so subtlety into the effort to kick up dust in the 2016 Democratic race by featuring a story about tension between the former Secretary and Vice President Biden.   Look for the Clinton connection to Syria to become a constant feature of hearings and attacks on the Obama Administration’s policies.

Moving Syria off center stage for a month or so is a further advantage to congressional Democrats and the Obama Administration because focus will now return to the looming brawls over the Continuing Resolution and potential government shut-down and the need to raise the debt ceiling.  On both subjects, public opinion is trending strongly towards Democrats and away from the Republican hardliners who are scheming to force a vote over defunding Obamacare as the price for avoiding a shut-down or default.  All the more reason for the Administration to cut a quick deal with Putin, move Syria to a backburner, and welcome a domestic confrontation that could highlight the Republicans’ obstructive hyper-partisanship and maybe even restore much-needed momentum to the President’s stalled legislative agenda.

Serious Questions about the Syria Question

For thirty years, the specter of Vietnam hung over every major U.S. foreign policy decision involving the use of force, and for more than a decade, the ghost of Iraq has haunted policy makers.  Only time will tell whether the forthcoming debate and decision on involvement in Syria, in response to the use of chemical weapons by the government and troops of Bashar al-Assad, adds another chapter to the history of questionable responses to military provocations.

Critics of President Obama’s decision to embrace a military response, but seek congressional authorization before launching the assault, are piling on, challenging the President for not having intervened sooner, for telescoping his planned actions, and for giving Congress the opportunity to debate and possibly oppose intervention.  Already, Syria’s government has been guffawing about an “historic American retreat” as Congress weighs its role and response.

There are many issues and implications to be discussed, both for Obama, the Congress, and the international community.  The outcome of the coming debate, and the military action which seems all but certain to follow, will have serious political implications for the future of the Obama Administration, the 2014 elections, and even the 2016 presidential race.

Any senator or representative who rejects the need for a vote should really hand in their voting card and find a new line of work.  Regardless of whether Obama needed to involve the Congress in the decision – and it was undoubtedly the right call – there is no credible way for a legislator to challenge the need for a congressional debate and vote.  While Congress has not exercised its constitutional role in formally declaring war since 1941, the late 20th and 21st century equivalent – authorizing the use of military force by the President – is well established.  

One key question is the credibility and thoroughness of the information on which a decision will be made.  There are tragic examples where Administrations have either misrepresented to Congress, or worse, to secure authorization for military action, particularly the Gulf of Tonkien Resolution and the Iraq WMD distortions.  In the current case, Obama is relying on independent validators to establish that WMDs were used against Syrian civilians, an important improvement over the self-certification by past Administrations. 

The coming congressional debate will be wide-ranging and filled with political implications.  That debate should begin without further delay. It is difficult, if not impossible, to understand why a military response is needed to deter further murderous action by Assad, in defiance of international agreements, while also waiting for a week until the Labor Day barbeques and August CODELs are neatly wrapped up.  If the situation is urgent enough to warrant military action, Congress should be back at work this week.  The Senate plans hearings; clearly, Speaker Boehner should call the House back without delay.

It will be critical for supporters of the President’s request to reinforce  that the current decision is quite different from the question of why we have not intervened earlier in the Syrian conflict.  The fragmented Syrian opposition, with many competing factions that detest and distrust each other almost as much as they oppose Assad, has presented a formidable barrier to U.S. military engagement.  For all the war-whooping by Sens. John McCain, Lindsay Graham and others, no serious Syria expert has been able to ascertain who will emerge as the de facto leader of a post-Assad Syria.  Uncertainty on that crucial point has more than justified Obama’s caution on earlier direct U.S. involvement.  Even the provision of arms is fraught with peril given the connections of some of the opposition groups to Al-Qaida and other sworn enemies of the United States and allies in the region.

Obama and his supporters will have to be clear that the current call for involvement does not presume to commit the U.S. to a broader military role in the Syrian civil war, only to inflict punishment for the use of WMDs.  Failure to clarify the goal of intervention will leave critics free to decry the “failure” of the operation for not toppling Assad, although the U.S. action could undermine his military and political strength 

There are multiple implications for domestic politics.  Republicans who have been loathe to authorize Obama even to issue waivers for the No Child Left Behind law are now being called upon to authorize him to take military action that might precipitate longer term involvement for which they would share responsibility.  A vote to grant Obama such authority, moreover, has the indirect impact of acknowledging his presidential leadership at a crucial time in the maneuvering around the Continuing Resolution and Debt Ceiling debates that are the top priorities when Congress returns, once the Syria decision is resolved.  If one is prepared to trust the President on crucial issues of war and peace, it becomes more difficult for Republicans to precipitate a government shutdown or default on international debts without appearing even more petty than in the past.

Speaker Boehner knows full well it is his responsibility to produce the Republican votes, and he doubtless has been provided extensive intelligence information justifying the authorization that Obama seeks.  As in almost every significant vote of the past two and a half years, however, the question is whether Boehner has the capability of persuading recalcitrant Republicans to deliver votes in support of legislation sought by the President.  There is a sizable portion of the Republican Conference which cannot bring itself to embrace anything Obama wants, and which will be loathe to cast a vote that will constrain their ability to be critical down the road.

Boehner’s problems likely mean that House Democrats will, once again, be needed to provide sufficient votes to grant Obama the authorization he seeks.  That will not be an easy task for the Democratic Leadership either.  A portion of the Caucus is skeptical about new military involvement that could metastasize into a deeper, more costly war, creating additional pressure to lift the sequestration caps on the Pentagon and impose further squeezes on domestic spending.   There are more than a few House Democrats who resent the lack of consultation by the White House on a host of issues since they lost the majority in 2010, and are fatigued at having to compensate for Boehner’s chronic inability to deliver GOP votes. And there are Democratic politics: the House Caucus is very much the product of the Vietnam-Iraq-Afghanistan experiences, and remains wary of military involvement, particularly when the strategy and likely outcome are as murky as they appear in Syria.  Over 120 House Democrats voted against going to war against Saddam Hussein in 2002, and very few of them, if any, look back on that vote with regret.  In fact, the regret comes from those who feel they erred in giving George Bush the authority to attack Iraq despite well-voiced doubts about the credibility of the evidence of Hussein’s WMDs 

No one likely recalls the political ramifications of that vote more than Hillary Clinton, who paid a heavy price in 2008 for her vote in favor of war with Iraq, and whose fate in 2016 could also be affected by the coming votes and military activity.  The questions being raised about the Obama Administration’s vacillating course on Syria over the past few years will certainly be focused, at some point, on the former Secretary of State.  What role did she play in the formulation and implementation of that policy?  What culpability can Republicans (or potentially, Democratic rivals) place with her for the lack of a clear U.S. strategy?  These will be crucial questions as critics and the press begin the inevitable process of dissecting Clinton’s record as Secretary of State, one which supporters reflexively salute as exemplary, but which has yet to be examined in the context of a campaign, let along expanded U.S. involvement in Syria. 

Finally, there are substantial implications for the 2014 congressional elections as well.  If Obama is weakened either by congressional opposition to action in Syria or by our becoming embroiled in yet another Middle Eastern war, the negative ramifications for Democrats could be significant.  If Republicans are perceived as playing politics with an issue of national security in order to foist blame on the President or weaken his hand in deficit and debt ceiling negotiations, their already anemic approval numbers could crumble further, to the advantage of Democrats 

The great unknown is whether Obama would proceed with military action even if Congress were to vote against authorizing him to do so.  In all likelihood, that is not a scenario that will occur since at the end of the day, the votes likely will be there in Congress, but barely.  But if not, Obama may well have tied his own hands; it is one thing to act without Congress’ approval, but unprecedented to act when Congress has voted against granting such power.  FDR faced congressional resistance to providing aid to Britain prior to Pearl Harbor, and he enjoyed strong public approval and control of Congress, not to mention a war that unquestionably involved U.S. allies and strategic interests.  A decision by Obama to launch a military attack on Syria in the wake of a disapproval vote in Congress would, beyond any doubt, launch hearings by House Republicans happy to promote a political, if not constitutional, crisis.

To avert that crisis and to ensure a victory in the forthcoming vote, Obama must convince the Congress and the country that genuine U.S. strategic interests are involved in punishing Assad, if not deposing him.  If an attack is payback for Assad’s violation of international law, Obama faces a formidable task in explaining why the international community is unprepared to become engaged, and why it falls to the U.S. alone to respond to the use of WMDs. Why would other countries ever agree to become engaged in police actions if the U.S. is prepared to unilaterally accept the cost of enforcing international agreements?  And how will a U.S. attack change the behavior of a tyrant already willing to butcher thousands of his own civilians despite international condemnation?

Many weighty and troubling decisions to be made, with significant strategic and political ramifications, not to mention the thousands of human lives at stake.  Probably time for Congress to return from vacation.