Not Going Well

There’s good news for Los Angeles. Monday’s traffic will be miserable, as usual, but not catastrophic. President Obama has cancelled his trip out here. He was going to speak at the annual AFL-CIO convention on South Figueroa, downtown at the fancy Convention Center, next to Staples Center where the Lakers play, in what the White House had said was a continuation of his really important middle-class jobs tour. Now he’s not. That will ease traffic down that way, and he was also going to attend a dinner at the home of Marta Kauffman, the co-creator of that iconic sitcom “Friends” – a fundraiser where folks would have paid well over thirty-thousand dollars a plate to chat with him. Yes, that’s not exactly a middle-class thing, but now they won’t be doing that, and since Kauffman lives in a fancy giant beach estate on Pacific Coast Highway well north of Malibu, the rest of us can drive over and watch the late-afternoon surfers just north of the Malibu Pier without the Secret Service screaming by and ruining everyone’s Gidget moment.

It’s all good – for us, not Obama:

“The president’s trip to California has been canceled,” a White House official said. “He will remain in Washington to work on the Syrian resolution before Congress.”

While prospects for passage of a resolution in the Senate look positive, the White House does not appear to have the votes in the lower chamber to win – at least not yet.

Actually he may never have those votes, as Politico reports:

If the House voted today on a resolution to attack Syria, President Barack Obama would lose – and lose big.

That’s the private assessment of House Republican and Democratic lawmakers and aides who are closely involved in the process.

If the Senate passes a use-of-force resolution next week – which is no sure thing – the current dynamics suggest that the House would defeat it. That would represent a dramatic failure for Obama, and once again prove that his sway over Congress is extraordinarily limited. The loss would have serious reverberations throughout the next three months, when Obama faces off against Congress in a series of high-stakes fiscal battles.

Several Republican leadership aides, who are counting votes but not encouraging a position, say that there are roughly one to two dozen “yes” votes in favor of military action at this time. The stunningly low number is expected to grow a bit.

It looks like only fifty or sixty Republicans will vote with Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who surprised everyone and stood with Obama on the necessity a launching a few cruise missiles into Syria to teach that Assad fellow a thing or two – no one can use chemical weapons, even on his own people, and especially on civilian women and children – but that fifty or sixty is less than one-third of the House Republican Conference. That would mean all two hundred or so House Democrats would have to vote for the thing, every one of them, but Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer may, at best, be able to round up one-hundred thirty “yes” votes, if they’re lucky. Obama needs to stay in Washington and twist some arms, if he can. It’s just that he’s not very good at that, or he prefers not to. But then he did ask for this vote.

It’s all very odd, and Ezra Klein offers this:

Privately, Hill aides joke that everything is going exactly to President Obama’s plan. It’s just that that plan is to stay far, far away from Syria.

This is the (tongue-in-cheek) 12-dimensional chess interpretation of the Obama administration’s Syria strategy. Boxed in by red-line rhetoric and the Sunday show warriors, the Obama administration needed to somehow mobilize the opposition to war in Syria. It did that by “fumbling” the roll-out terribly. …

The Obama administration’s strategy to cool the country on this war without expressly backing away from the president’s red lines has been brilliant, Hill aides say (just look at the polls showing overwhelming opposition!). If they are going to go to war, their efforts to goad Congress into writing a punitively narrow authorization of force that sharply limits any potential for escalation have worked beautifully.

Believing anything else – like this is how the administration is actually leading the United States into conflict – is too unsettling.

That sets off Andrew Sullivan:

We elected Obama over McCain and yet Obama is now ceding foreign policy to that discredited blowhard. We believed Obama was a realist, and yet we hear the most abstract and unreconstructed poems to liberal interventionism from his secretary of state. I certainly was led to believe – from a ridiculously high-level source – that intervening in Syria was the very last thing the president wanted to do. And yet here we are. He seems genuine.

Is this some brilliant strategic design? Force the House to acknowledge that there is no public support for war against Syria … and move fast and unilaterally first to force the UN to become more aggressive, and even get Putin’s possible assent to future action if more inspections prove Assad’s use of chemical weapons to be deliberate and undeniable?

I wish I could believe it. The sheer weakness of the case for war is so obvious perhaps Obama is waiting for us to make him pull back before it’s too late. The delay could put more pressure on Putin ahead of the G-20. There are many twists and turns possible. But I am afraid I don’t believe it. Occam’s razor is the best bet here. Obama made a foolish pledge to go to war if chemical weapons are used and now his bluff has been called by Assad.

It may soon be called by Tehran too. And what then, Mr President, what then?

Slow down. Take a deep breath. Maybe this subtle and very clever stop-me-before-I-have-to-do-something-really-stupid theory was just a joke. On the other hand, if it was a joke, things really are as unsettling as they seem. Obama looks like a fool and a loser, and everyone else in Congress looks like a self-righteous jackass, or more of one than usual.

Either way, Obama is in trouble, or he’s not, as Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog explains here:

If Obama loses, and agrees to abide by the results of the vote, the master media narrative will be that this was a humiliation for him, weakening him for the rest of his presidency.

But you know who’s not going to go along with that narrative? The public.

If we get to that point, and the press (as it surely will) begins talking about a mortally wounded presidency, it will just be a continuation of a media narrative we’ve heard all year, with one pundit after another after another looking into the dire state of Obama’s “mojo.” Sequestration, Benghazi, the IRS, Edward Snowden … is the recovery of Obama’s “mojo” even possible?

And yet with all that, the public has just shrugged. There’s been a dip in his approval rating since the November elections, but it’s still in the same narrow band where it’s remained for three and a half years…

Yep, you could look that up of course, which Steve M explains this way:

The public wants what it wants – in this case, to avoid war – and will be pleased if war is avoided. Obama’s standing will stay roughly the same because enough people still see him as right, or more or less right, on a wide range of issues (unlike George W. Bush at roughly this point in his presidency, who’d proved to be utterly wrong on everything, from Iraq to Katrina to Terri Schiavo to Social Security).

What the public doesn’t care about is the Beltway’s obsession, which is the power ranking of public officials. The public won’t care that losing makes Obama look weak.

There’s really not much to lose either way:

Insiders are obsessed with the notion that defeat weakens politicians; the public doesn’t care. Ordinary people suffer defeats all the time; we have to dust ourselves off and keep going. It doesn’t surprise us when it happens to politicians, however fascinating and earth-shattering it is to the power-obsessed.

And then there’s the alternative:

Now, if Obama loses the vote and attacks Syria anyway, that would be a different matter. But I think he’ll suffer long-term political consequences only if the result is a quagmire – the public has been beaten down by years and years of war and presidential unilateralism, and is somewhat resigned to both. The teabaggers are sure they know what the president’s powers are limited to – though that standard seems to have changed for them since the last presidency – but the rest of America isn’t sure anymore.

And if this leads to an impeachment, that’ll change everything. I don’t believe the non-teabag public wants impeachment at all. A brief campaign against Syria which has impeachment as its most visible lingering aftereffect would not be bad for Obama (and Democrats) politically – not by a long shot.

Obama will be fine either way, except that it’s hard to tell how the American public will feel about this:

The powerful pro-Israel lobby AIPAC is planning to launch a major lobbying campaign to push wayward lawmakers to back the resolution authorizing U.S. strikes against Syria, sources said Thursday.

Officials say that some 250 Jewish leaders and AIPAC activists will storm the halls on Capitol Hill beginning next week to persuade lawmakers that Congress must adopt the resolution or risk emboldening Iran’s efforts to build a nuclear weapon. They are expected to lobby virtually every member of Congress, arguing that “barbarism” by the Assad regime cannot be tolerated, and that failing to act would “send a message” to Tehran that the U.S. won’t stand up to hostile countries’ efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction, according to a source with the group.

“History tells us that ambiguity [in U.S. actions] invites aggression,” said the AIPAC source who asked not to be named. The source added the group will now be engaged in a “major mobilization” over the issue.

This is, in effect, the current Israeli government sending in two-hundred fifty lobbyists to twist the arms Obama won’t twist, for their own ends, and Andrew Sullivan sees what’s next:

So McCain and AIPAC will be swift in resurrecting a neoconservative foreign policy that will effectively undo a huge amount of the progress this president has so far managed to build.

Maybe Obama can get out of this somehow. But I don’t see quite how – and McCain now feels emboldened enough to oppose the current Senate Resolution on the grounds that it isn’t sufficiently like the Iraq resolution. The only hope I can see is for the House to turn the president down. That is something many Republicans and perhaps a few Democrats will be prepared to do. But turn down AIPAC? That’s another matter entirely.

This does come up now and then. The test of seriousness and patriotism and moral courage in Washington often comes down to whether you’ll do the right thing for Israel, even if hurts America badly. Make the wrong choice and you’ll be called an anti-Semite, or a self-hating Jew of you happen to be Jewish, and the evangelical right will remind you that Israel is Jesus Land and thus far more important than America, really. Obama has faced that many times, when he questioned one more massive strike in Gaza or one more Settlement going up in a Palestinian neighborhood, or when he suggests the Israelis at least talk to the Palestinians. Obama gets hammered for such things and Congress dare not cross Israel, so this new lobbying effort could change everything. They’re with Obama now, but seem to want even more than he wants – Assad gone, Hezbollah gone, Iran neutered, Egypt fixed, and no pesky neighbors at all, and no criticism if they wipe out as many Palestinians as they find useful, or all of them. He may not want them with him.

Obama may be fighting for political survival, and no more than that, as William Galston suggests in a Wall Street Journal column:

He [Obama] must be prepared to go all-in to win what is shaping up as a tough fight on Capitol Hill. One thing is clear: A loss would shatter his presidency – and a lot more.

Maybe that’s it, but at the renegade American Conservative, Daniel Larison just doesn’t see it:

It could be true that Obama’s presidency would be permanently damaged by a defeat of a Syria resolution, but it is doubtful that the U.S. would lose anything important because of this. Kerry made any number of “guarantees” to the Foreign Relations Committee about things that he couldn’t possibly know or guarantee with certainty, but one of the more preposterous claims that Kerry made yesterday was that the U.S. would lose allies by not attacking Syria. It is possible that relations with some client states in the Gulf would be strained, but it is silly to think that there are any allies of the United States that would cease to be allies because they found the U.S. response insufficient. Interventionists typically overstate the costs of inaction and underestimate the costs of the action they demand, and Galston’s column is no different.

Think about it:

If he loses, which he certainly could, it would be a significant political embarrassment, but it might also save him from compounding the error he made last year when he issued his ill-advised “red line” statements. While he might not appreciate it at first, the people voting against him in Congress might be doing him the biggest favor of his second term by providing him with a good way to reject the inevitable pressure for increasing U.S. involvement in Syria. The pressure to escalate will come no matter how Congress votes this month, but the only plausible way that Obama can resist it for the remainder of his term is if Congress rejects any form of military intervention in Syria. If he gives in to that pressure, war in Syria will consume and wreck his second term just as surely as the Iraq war did to his predecessor’s, and that will do far more to “shatter” his presidency and America’s standing in the world than anything that happens in Congress in the next few weeks.

There is no problem here, save for this:

I should add a few comments about “Iraq syndrome,” since this is becoming a common way to describe the absolutely justifiable and sane reaction of the public and even many in Washington to the disaster of the Iraq war.

Interventionists call this a syndrome because it is supposed to be seen as an affliction or something from which Americans need to recover, as if there were something unhealthy or harmful in becoming extremely wary of waging wars of choice in countries that we don’t understand very well for dubious and often unobtainable goals. On the contrary, the existence of this so-called “syndrome” is proof that the public is very sensibly recoiling from the repeated misjudgments and mistakes of their political leaders. Most Americans are firmly against making yet another major foreign policy error, and what they keep hearing from Washington and from much of the media is that they are suffering from some kind of malady that needs to be cured with another war.

There’s nothing that needs to be cured, as Andrew Sullivan notes:

This truly is becoming a battle between the Washington war-machine and the people it is supposed to protect. And yes, Iraq is relevant. Of course it is relevant. And no, as Daniel argues, this is not a syndrome. It is not a syndrome to look twice before crossing the street, when you have been run over by a truck twice in the last decade. In any case, the parallels are so close as to be almost absurd. The president is trying to get support for a military campaign against a Baathist leader in a murderously divided Middle Eastern country in order to prevent the use of WMDs and to send a message to Iran. I mean: is there any more obvious analogy? Now I know the president has ruled out “boots on the ground”. But there are already boots on the ground, in a covert war the war-machine has already launched. And, as John Kerry was forced to concede, entering this conflict could quite easily require troops in the near or distant future if we are not to be seen as having empowered Assad rather than removed him.

And the same people and factions that backed that war are now backing this one: the full neocon chorus, AIPAC, the liberal internationalists, the Clintons, McCain, and on and on. Since no true accountability for that catastrophe was ever exacted, we are forced to endure the utterly discredited Bill Kristol and Paul Wolfowitz make exactly the same arguments they made then. And yet this time, the man we elected not to repeat the Iraq disaster, the man who only holds the office he does because of his wise opposition to that war, is now apparently eager to risk a repeat of it.

Let’s be clear. The administration is losing this argument, and looks likely to lose the Congress. There are four times as many anti-war votes right now as pro-war ones in the House. The public remains opposed. Only neocons are backing the president forcefully, if he assents to their full war agenda. The minute he doesn’t launch a full-scale war, they will abandon him. That’s already a horrible reminder that if the president decides to risk his entire second term on this quixotic act of neocon symbolism, he will be very alone very fast, with no country and no Congress behind him and not even the Brits offering some fig leaf of international support.

Sullivan prefers this outcome:

Lose the vote, don’t go to war, but go to the UN repeatedly and insistently. Gather more and more evidence. Get Ambassador Power to pummel the Russians and Chinese with their grotesque refusal to do anything about this ghastly mass murder. Expose Putin for the brutal thug that he is. And focus on the huge challenges at home: a still-weak economy, a huge overhaul of healthcare, a golden opportunity for immigration reform. That’s why he was elected. And his domestic legacy is at a pivotal point.

Basically, Sullivan wants his hero back:

I know opposing this president is painful for so many who want him to succeed. It’s painful – agonizing – for me. I understand his genuine and justified revulsion at this use of chemical arms and the wanton, hideous brutality of the Assad regime. I deeply respect his moral stand. He is right that the international community should not stand by. But America cannot be the sucker who is responsible for countering all evil in the world and then blamed for every success and failure. We must not become the sole actor against evil in the world, and not only because, at this point, after GITMO and Abu Ghraib and pre-emptive war, we have no standing to do so. We simply do not have the ability or the resources to do it. We’re as fiscally bankrupt as we are militarily incapable of fighting other people’s wars for them. And asking the military to do another impossible job in another Middle East hell-hole is grotesquely irresponsible.

We should make our case to the world and if we fail, as Obama clearly is, we should accept that and move this drama to a diplomatic stage. Yes, I know the horrors endure. I am not looking away. But if you cannot end someone else’s brutality without profoundly wounding yourself and empowering this vicious little creep at the same time, you should simply keep making your case – until Putin and Assad are close to indistinguishable, and moderate elements in Iran begin to gulp at the barbarism in plain sight.

Sullivan admits that will take time and patience and resolve, but the alternative really is kind of dumb. That leaves this. Obama will skip his trip to Los Angeles and stay in Washington and try to find the votes for what he thinks is the right thing to do about Assad, but Obama is not dumb. If he doesn’t get the votes that’ll be fine too – the people should have a say in their government, and there are plenty of other things that need attention, and he can also begin to hammer away at the UN and other world leaders until something is done about the Syria mess. This would weaken him, with those who confuse being reasonable with weakness, but after George Bush, there are fewer and fewer of those. And California will always be here.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Intervening in Syria, Obama and Diplomacy, Obama Just Like Bush, Obama's Evolution and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Not Going Well

  1. Russell Sadler says:

    Another grand round up of opinion.

    There is one point that you have not touched on. I think Obama has been ambivalent about Syria for the same reasons that President H.W. Bush decided not to pursue Sadam’s army to Baghdad and kill or depose him. Who would replace Sadam? That question is either no one or is still being determined causing turmoil and instability in the region.

    If the US kills or deposes Assad, who will replace him. It is utter arrogance to think that this country can choose the new Syrian ruler and support him with our military power. It didn’t happen in any of the CIA interventions after WW II. It hasn’t happened in Iraq and it certainly hasn’t happened in Afghanistan and the neo-cons had their way in both cases.

    If the Republicans in the House deny President Obama’s request to act — and that’s what is likely to happen — they completely inoculate Democrats the next time they deny a Republican president’s demand to go to war — most likely Iran. And that can’t help but be good for the country.

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