Obama on the Verge of Being Handed a Major Defeat on Syria

The Obama Administration is presenting the upcoming Congressional votes on its blank check Authorization to Use Military Force in Syria as justified, irrelevant (since Kerry has asserted that the Administration doesn’t need Congress’ approval can attack even in the face of a no vote), but a done deal nevertheless. None of those claims stand up to scrutiny.

Other writers have covered in gory detail how the US insistence that it has proof that Assad was behind the chemical attacks looks like a not-sufficiently-improved version of the Iraq WMD playbook. Nothing from the Administration in the last 48 hours has dented these critics’ case. Indeed, one has to wonder as to why the US is trying to pre-empt UN evidence-gathering and analysis. Might it be that it would finger the rebels, as in the folks the US has been funding? Are we prepared to go after them if they were the ones who crossed Obama’s red line?

But what is relevant right now is not what actually happened in Syria (why should we trouble ourselves with pesky details?) but that, as Lambert put it, the imperial reality-creating machine is starting to break down before our eyes. Since I am trying to minimize time on the Web this week (I am still in theory on vacation), it would have been easy to have been snookered by the news stories of the day: Boehner agrees to support Obama on Syria! Senate Foreign Relations Committee passes resolution authorizing an American strike on Syria! Both houses are falling into line, so resign yourself to more Middle Eastern misadventures.

Reports from inside the Beltway give a very different picture. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed the authorization resolution with weak support, a 10-7-1 vote. This sends a message to the Senate that even some hawks are loath to throw their weight behind it. By contrast, with the Amash amendment (the amendment attached to a Defense Department funding bill that would have curbed the NSA), the House leadership of both parties were resoundingly opposed, and current and former military and intelligence officials sounded dire warnings as to all the terrible things that would happen if the resolution passed.

If Obama’s success is looking a tad wobbly in the Senate, it’s not hard to extrapolate how bad things are in the House. Tellingly, a new Ezra Klein’s interview, “Rep. Brad Sherman explains how the White House could win the Syria vote,” shows pro-intervention Sherman to be as defensive as the headline indicates.

ThinkProgress’ House whip count as of the end of Wednesday broke down with 47 members of the House as firm or inclined to a yes vote, 187 firm or inclined to a no vote, and 220 unknown or undecided. Firedoglake comes up with a broadly similar picture: 55 firmly or inclined to a yes, 155 firmly or inclined to a negative vote. One of my Congressional sources says based on his conversations with Republicans he is pretty certain the Administration will be forced to withdraw the resolution or postpone a vote in the House. Note that the tentative schedule is for the Senate to start debating the resolution next Tuesday the 10th and vote that day or the 11th. The House is set to start debate either on the 12th or the week of the 16th.

One might argue that this reading isn’t earth-shaking. The Administration has a week or more to turn things around in the House.

The problem is that if anything, it seems to be having trouble getting traction. The key isn’t simply that various handicappers, such as Politico, peg the resolution as going down to defeat if the vote were held today. It’s that the Administration is utterly unable to make a case, so the idea that they will make much headway with the fence-sitters or those disposed to vote no looks remote. From Politico:

House Republican staffers tell us that several key members are unsatisfied so far by the classified briefings from the administration. A top aide said the administration has failed to make a compelling case “beyond spasmodic moral outrage.”

“Nobody has really heard how this is going to either improve the situation on the ground in Syria, improve the situation for pro-democracy groups, not play into al-Qaeda’s hands, not play into Russia’s hands, not play into China’s hands,” the aide said. “Members felt the administration hasn’t made a case about how this is going to stop it from happening again. They’re putting a lot of chips on: ‘We have to do this for Israel,’ or, ‘We have to do this because it’s unacceptable.’”

Another House GOP aide told us that President Obama will have to make a better personal case to the public, not just to Congress: If you’re going to sell the members, you also have to sell the constituents. Otherwise, the country could watch the amazing spectacle of Congress defeating a war resolution backed by the president and every top elected leader. And Wednesday evening, a top House Republican aide said the measure could actually lose.

This vote is turning out to be another TARP-type watershed, with the public virtually unified in its opposition (calls to Congresscrittters are reportedly running well over 90% against intervention). And remember, it took a market swan dive, a second TARP vote, and the additional of lots of pork to reverse the initial vote. But also bear in mind that the reason TARP was initially voted down was the barrage of voter phone calls and e-mails against it, reportedly 99% opposed until financial services firms started getting employees to call in favor of the bill, which shifted the tally to a mere 80% or so of callers opposed. So if you have not called or written your Congresscritters, be sure to do so pronto.

It’s revealing to see not just which politicians have taken firm positions on Syria, but which ones are keeping a pointedly low profile. Joe Biden, for instance, is missing in action. Olivier Knox at Yahoo might have found out why:

Six years ago, Biden vowed to impeach President George W. Bush if the Republican bombed Iran without first getting congressional approval.

“The president has no authority to unilaterally attack Iran, and if he does, as Foreign Relations Committee chairman, I will move to impeach,” Biden said at the time.

In Massachusetts, among the five candidates running for Representative Edward Markey’s seat, only one, Carl Sciortino, has said he’s against giving Obama the go-ahead in Syria. By contrast, Elizabeth Warren, who is regularly touted as a progressive hope, is falling well short of her billing. Yes, she’s done far better in using her bully pulpit in Senate Banking Committee hearings, which has helped keep the issue of bank reform from fading completely from view. But her student loan bill, which was predictably defeated, was a narrow technocratic fix that set out to preserve the terrible American system of higher education indentured servitude. Warren has yet to demonstrate she’s willing to buck the Administration on a major issue. She voted for the confirmation of Rubinite Jack Lew as Treasury Secretary. She also voted to confirm James Comey as head of the FBI. Recall that Conway worked for Lockheed Martin after leaving the Bush Administration in 2005 through 2010 and voiced his support for NSA surveillance as a “valuable tool in counterterrorism.” So it should be no surprise that despite overwhelming public opposition to an attack on Syria, Warren is unwilling to buck the party, at least until she has plenty of air cover. From Huffington Post earlier in the week:

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said “it’s appropriate” for President Barack Obama to seek approval from Congress before taking military action in Syria.

“It’s appropriate that he ask for that,” Warren said at the annual Central Massachusetts AFL-CIO Labor Day breakfast, according to the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

“What the Assad regime did is reprehensible, but we have to consider what’s in America’s best interest,” Warren said.

Readers will not doubt notice the endorsement of not-yet-substantiated Administration claims that it has the goods on Assad.

Warren isn’t the only cautious Congressman who needs a big voter push. But she’s been positioned as a progressive leader when she’s not willing to take up the mantle save in her areas of expertise, and even then only very selectively. Even though she may move into vocal opposition, she’d be doing so based on her reading of the tea leaves, not on a willingness to influence policy. Perhaps she’ll redeem herself by filibustering Obama’s nomination of Larry Summers for Fed chairman. But in the meantime, it’s incumbent on those of us who are opposed to Syrian adventurism to pressure Democrats who are peculiarly unwilling to repudiate Obama’s inept, dishonest, and destructive initiatives.

This piece is cross-posted from Naked Capitalism with permission.

5 Responses to "Obama on the Verge of Being Handed a Major Defeat on Syria"

  1. ray johns   September 5, 2013 at 1:03 pm

    Yves Smith , Your anti-interventionist sentiments would be more honest if you would not deny that France, Great Britain, and the United Nations (besides America) have done their own independent investigations on the Sarin gas attacks and all of them agree that none of the rebel groups had the capability yet to pull off a sarin attack that would have needed state-sponsored factories to produce the poisonous gas bomb. It also has been proved that Assad had used sarin gas attacks on his own people numerous times before ,but at very low levels and scale so as not to antagonize the larger Western powers or its own major allies Russia and China. But, this gas attack by Assad is different in the larger scale and deaths in the attack on civilian men, women ,and children–a clear terrorizing attack that had nothing to do with any threat to Assad or his dictatorial regime. There is an important moral argument that needs to be addressed that a state must be held accountable for breaking international norms against intolerable forms of aggression in war such as genocidal poisonous gas attacks on civilians.

    • ray johns   September 5, 2013 at 1:29 pm

      Further, President Obama's multi-lateral approach seems to be the most appropriate since the United States has, besides certain national interests to protect first , also international responsibilities as a permanent, founding member of the United Nations Security Counsel to uphold international treaties outlawing chemical weapons use against civilian populations.

  2. Kim   September 5, 2013 at 4:21 pm

    In the ww1 combat gases were widely used with known horrifying consequences. The trenches were mundane hells with combat gas used. Thus World leaders agreed in 1925 Geneva Gas Protocol banning gas weapons to mitigate horrors of war. it is trult horrifying weapons that practically lungs become burned and eyes gouged oyt and kimbs paralysed etc. by such devilish substances. Recently 1972 Biological weapons convention and 1993 Chemical weapons conventiin ban these substances. For all future and for all mankind we now necessarily must strongly punish the horrible perpetrator of Aug21 Damascus gas attack very strongly.

  3. ray johns   September 6, 2013 at 8:34 am

    President Obama has taken a proper course to take his case for a punishing limited-strike on Assad to the U S Congress and world leaders (other permanent members of the Security Council) as well as address the larger league of nations in the General Assembly. I believe that Obama is attempting to break the stalemate in the Security Council by Russia and China's veto of military actions against Syria by mobilizing the other nations in the General Assembly to take collective action against Assad's illegitimate regime. The problem of Assad and the upholding of international norms of restraint and cooperation in war and peace are every nation's responsibility that extends beyond its borders and primary national safety and security interests. I am sure that President Obama fully understands the greater war risks that need to be avoided so that the limited military strike on Assad can work to advance the prospects for a political solution .

  4. Aransan   September 10, 2013 at 2:52 am

    It seems to me that Obama's opponents just want Obama to make a decision on his own, and then they will blast him no matter what decision he makes. Obama is too smart to fall into that trap and is forcing his opponents to show their hand. There are forces at work apparently determined to weaken the power of the presidency and this will make it hard for any present or future President to show leadership.