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Column: The politics of Syria

By Bill Schneider

Congressional Democrats are in a bind. If they vote to authorize a military strike on Syria, they could be putting the country on a slippery slope to war. But if they vote no, they will deliver a crushing defeat to their president.

What President Barack Obama did was call their bluff. Last week, more than 50 House Democrats signed a letter urging the president to "seek an affirmative decision of Congress" before committing to any military engagement. That was the Democrats' way of going on record to express reservations about what Obama sounded like he was going to do anyway. Then, lo and behold, the president decided to do exactly what they asked. Now it's their decision.

Anti-war sentiment is a powerful force on the left. It was nurtured by bitter experiences in Vietnam and Iraq. Obama himself comes out of that tradition. He is trying to keep faith with it by arguing, as he did at a meeting with congressional leaders, that his attack plan is "proportional, it is limited, it does not involve boots on the ground." He added, "This is not Iraq, and this is not Afghanistan." Secretary of State John Kerry tried to change the metaphor when he called it "a Munich moment." Meaning, a "no" vote would be a vote to appease a dictator.

The president cannot afford to lose this vote. If he does, his authority will be severely weakened. He will find it difficult to get anything passed for the remainder of his term — budget deal, immigration reform, funding for Obamacare, climate change legislation. He will instantly become a lame duck.

To win, Obama needs to carry a solid majority of Democrats. Most Republicans will vote no. A lot of Tea Party Republicans want to use the vote to bring Obama down. Rather than debate the policy, they will argue that this president is simply not competent to carry it out. They don't believe he should be given war-making powers. If Obama can't keep his own party behind him, Republicans are not going to bail him out.

The president claims that he has the authority to carry out the strikes without congressional authorization. If he does that after Congress has voted "no," House Republicans will likely move to impeach him. It's exactly the pretext they've been looking for. A Washington Post-ABC News poll shows 59 percent of Americans opposed to the missile strikes. Ironically, Syria is a rare issue on which you find bipartisan agreement: 54 percent of Democrats and 55 percent of Republicans oppose an attack. Opposition is even stronger among women (65 percent), racial minorities (63 percent), low-income people (63 percent), liberals (62 percent) and Americans with advanced degrees (60 percent). Those people are the Democratic Party's base.

The president has to persuade the public that the United States must act, not in its national interest, but in its international interest — as the principal guarantor of world order. At his news conference on Wednesday, Obama said, "My credibility is not on the line. International credibility is on the line." More than 180 countries - but not Syria — signed the Chemical Weapons Convention. The United States is the only country with the capability of enforcing it.

The rule for 65 years has been that, when there is a serious threat to international order, nothing will happen unless the United States acts — as we did in Kuwait and Kosovo and Afghanistan and Libya. And as we didn't in Rwanda.

Obama acknowledged the rule when he said in his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, "The plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms."

There is a problem with the rule, however. The American public does not accept that responsibility. Americans do not want to commit this country to the use of force unless they see a threat to our vital interests. And they do not feel threatened by Syria. The public thinks it's none of our business. The war in Syria is a civil war. It involves Islamic sects, Sunnis versus Shi'ites, neither of whom is friendly to the United States. One side is supported by Iran, the other by al Qaeda. How is the United States supposed to pick sides in that fight?

Defying public opinion is an extremely risky thing to do. The president and Congress defied public opinion during the Carter administration by ratifying the deeply unpopular Panama Canal treaties. It cost the Democrats several Senate seats and contributed to Jimmy Carter's defeat in 1980. In 2010, the federal bailout of big Wall Street financial institutions was highly unpopular. The bailout generated a Tea Party rebellion and cost several Republicans their seats.

Representative Tom Cole (R-Okla.) summarized the president's dilemma this way to the New York Times: "He is a war president without a war party."

The argument that's likely to be most convincing to Democrats is a partisan one: This is a vote to save their president. Obama has staked the remainder of his presidency on it. Are his fellow Democrats really willing to vote no and allow his enemies to bring him down?

That's a naked political calculation. But it may be what it takes to bring nervous and skeptical Democrats over to his side.

(Bill Schneider is a Reuters columnist. Opinions are his own)

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