Even if it turns out the Obama administration didn’t produce or luck into a diplomatic solution to the Syria crisis that results in the surrender of chemical warfare without U.S. military strikes on the country, the idea that the congressional vote on his authority to attack is an ultimate cookies-on-the-line existential challenge to the Obama presidency doesn’t make a great deal of sense.
If, say, the House votes down a use-of-force resolution in an action widely bruited about as a “crushing defeat for Obama,” then what? Exactly how will Obama’s “political capital” be diluted in a way that differs from the status quo ante?
Ezra Klein sums it up nicely:
There’s no peaceful, productive relationship with Congress for this vote to disrupt. The White House can’t get anything past House Republicans now. Neither a “yes” nor a “no” vote on Syria won’t change that. The downstream consequences of a congressional rebuff are, effectively, zero. It’s a few bad news cycles, and then all Washington will be talking about is the October debt limit.
What would change Obama’s presidency is a disastrous intervention in Syria. Imagine a series of American strikes, followed by either another gas attack by Assad, or some kind of terrorist reprisal by Hezbollah, or both. All of a sudden the administration either needs to become a full participant in the Syrian civil war or retreat and take the blame for all that happens in their wake.
Indeed, a lengthy involvement in Syria could harm the White House’s other priorities. As Matt Yglesias at Slate notes, it’s going to be a lot harder for the White House to hold the line against the GOP’s attempts to cancel sequestration’s defense cuts (and only the defense cuts) when the military is actually dropping bombs in a foreign land.
Conversely, any dancing in the end zone for Republicans in successfully derailing Obama’s pursuit of a use-of-force resolution could be short-lived as well, since this incident has exposed some very serious rifts within the GOP on foreign affairs that will hang fire soon enough (no later than the 2016 nomination process). And their strategic and tactical divisions on domestic issues aren’t going away, either, as Greg Sargent notes:
Whatever happens on Syria, and no matter how much “Obama is weak” punditry that results from it, all of the remaining battles will be just as perilous for the GOP as they appeared before the Syria debate heated up. Folks making the case that a Syria loss throws Obama’s second term agenda into serious doubt — as if Congressional intransigence were not already about as bad as it could possibly get — need to explain what they really mean when they say that. It’s not clear even they know.
No, it’s not. It’s just a habit for journalists to say big debates have big and equal consequences for “winners” and “losers.” Sometimes you just don’t know.