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Jon-Christopher Bua

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Does Obama Go It Alone?

Posted: 09/09/2013 00:00

As the week begins President Obama faces the toughest test of his presidency to date.

Through a combination of factors, some of his own making and some beyond his control, he has boxed himself and the US Government into a corner and there appears to be no easy way out.

Before Syrian President Assad's latest and largest assault using chemical weapons on his own people, President Obama had tried to back away from the red line he drew a year ago.

However, Assad has continued to raise the ante by testing just how serious the US and its allies as well as the international community are about enforcing that red line stand against his use of chemical weapons.

Initially the British and the French seemed to be holding firm and in fact pushing the President to stand firm along with them.

However, their resolve quickly melted when put to the test of gaining the support of their own people to take military action.

First the vote in the British Parliament and now the French seem to be backing off until the UN inspectors report is delivered - to perhaps buy some time?

This may have left the US on its own as the only permanent member of the UN Security Council still trying to uphold the international ban on the use of chemical weapons by imposing consequences on the Assad Regime for its breach.

To make matters worse, the economic woes in the US have now collided with a general distrust of government and the long memory of the way the US was dragged into the War in Iraq.

The idea of a repeat of US military action based on faulty or bad intelligence has become so abhorrent to the American sensibility and psyche, that it has made the Obama Administration's job of selling some sort of military action against the Assad Regime a herculean task.

Additionally, this week marks a huge confluence of events as President Obama asks for the support of Congress:

- An address by President Obama to the nation and the world laying out his argument for a military response against Syria for the use of chemical weapons on Tuesday.

- Votes in both Houses of Congress to authorize President Obama to use military force against Syria after the President's speech

- The one year anniversary of the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya on Wednesday

- The 12th Anniversary of 9/11 on Wednesday

Under normal circumstances this week would have marked the unofficial beginning of the 2014 Mid-Term Election Cycle.

However, with such grave matters at hand this vote by Congress will preempt all of its regular business.

This will not only be a vote of conscience for each member of Congress it will also be nuanced by the fears of those in Congress who are up for re-election in 2014.

This vote has the potential to end the political careers of the entire House of Representatives and about 1/3 of the Senate who are facing re-election in 2014 in one fell swoop!

Those members are indeed fearful of the wrath of their constituents and the primary challengers within their own party.

All lawmakers are receiving messages that are overwhelmingly opposed to any military intervention.

The interest groups are also mobilizing including: AIPAC (American Israel - Political Action Committee) who is planning to flood Congress with activists in support of the resolution, Code Pink who is organizing demonstrations against the resolution and Moveon.org who is running ads in opposition to resolution....the list goes on.

In the Senate this vote is not along party lines. It is likely to reflect presidential ambitions for 2016 and concerns of Senators up for re-election in difficult states in 2014.

In the Senate if 51 Senators vote no the resolution would fail- additionally one Senator can filibuster as Sen. Rand Paul has threatened to do which would delay the vote or 41 Senators in procedural vote could prevent the resolution from going to the floor for a full Senate vote.

It will also be interesting to see how the Senators who have 2014 races for re-election in vulnerable seats actually cast their votes - Mark Pryor (D- AR), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Kay Hagen (D- NC), Mark Begich (D- AL).

Although it is not clear that President has the votes for Senate approval yet that is clearly where the greatest effort is being made.

The Vice President hosted a private dinner for some key Senate Republicans and the President showed up as a surprise guest.

It seems as though the President and his team are counting on a Senate approval where members are known to take a longer view of their votes than the members in the House.

In the House of Representatives if 217 House members vote no- the resolution would fail. At the moment the numbers for approval in the House do not look good.

In the House of Representatives it is important to note that this vote is not along party lines and is making strange bedfellows.

The Congressional Black Caucus - a group who normally is strongly behind the President - is split and many of its members have been publicly vocal about their opposition to the resolution.

Liberal Democrats have joined with Libertarian Republicans to oppose any military action in Syria.

John Boehner, the Speaker and Eric Cantor, the Majority Leader have both announced their support of the President's resolution.

Obama's Challenge - Issues At Stake

What is the imminent and vital US strategic interest - both within Syria and in the Region?

Does the US know what the consequences of a military strike will be as it relates to the Syrian civil war and the broader ones for the US and its allies in the Region?

Will the US and its allies be better off after this response or will this further destabilize this volatile region?

As in every military operation what are the "unknowns"?

Whether Obama uses force with the support of both or just one House of Congress or if he decides to go it alone, what will the long term consequences be for the Obama Presidency, the power of the presidency in general and US prestige worldwide?

This week marks the return of Congress to Washington after their Summer recess to handle other extremely important Congressional business like funding the government and dealing with budget issues generally - all of this will have to wait.

If one or both Houses of Congress fail to approve the resolution it is still not clear whether President Obama intends to go it alone. Both the President and his team have gone to great pains to avoid answering this question.

There is precedent in 1999 where President Bill Clinton went forward with military action in Kosovo after the Senate voted to authorize it - in a vote of 58-41 - but before the House voted at all.

At a minimum there are differing views on Presidential power versus that of Congress under the Constitution when comes to military action.

If the President were to go forward in face of a no vote, he truly would be on his own - putting the remainder of his presidency and his legacy on the line.

Jon-Christopher Bua's blogposts for Sky News appear here

 
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