Every member of the Senate with a glimmer of ambition to run for president – and that’s most of them – knows that a vote for war can make or break a political career. The example of Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose vote to authorize the 2003 invasion of Iraq crippled her bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, is vivid in every mind on Capitol Hill.
So while it might be tempting to assume that members of Congress will be thinking solely of the national interest when they vote on President Obama’s request for punitive strikes against Syria, there will be old-fashioned politics at work as well. And the stakes are higher for some than for others.
Obama, of course, has the most to lose. He has made it clear that, like all his recent predecessors, he doesn’t think he needs authorization from Congress to launch missile strikes against Syria. But that only underscores the fact that Obama turned to Congress out of weakness, not strength.
The president hasn’t been able to build a national consensus in favor of intervention in Syria. He doesn’t have the United Nations Security Council, NATO or even the British government at his side. That has left him with two risky options: attack Syria without approval from Congress, or seek congressional authorization and risk an embarrassing rejection.
House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., both announced Tuesday that they would vote in favor of military action, an important boost for Obama. But most members of the House and Senate haven’t declared their positions yet. And many of those who support Obama’s request, such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., are using the debate to excoriate the president for what they see as indecision and incompetence.
If Obama loses in both houses, his power and prestige will suffer a potentially crippling blow; he’ll look like the least effective president since Jimmy Carter. If he wins, he’ll merely be back where he was a week ago: a reluctant warrior preparing limited military action in the service of a policy he doesn’t seem enthusiastic about.
The stakes are also high for Democrats hoping to run for president in 2016, including Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden. Neither is in Congress, so they don’t have to vote on Obama’s request. But Biden, as a loyal No. 2, is actively lobbying for its passage. Clinton was initially quiet on the issue, even though she was a leading hawk on Syria policy when she was Obama’s secretary of State; she couldn’t help but remember that Obama defeated her in 2008 partly by criticizing her 2002 vote on Iraq. But on Tuesday, one of her aides told Politico that Clinton supports Obama’s request.
Democrats in Congress are also acutely aware of the stakes. Those representing liberal states or districts have to worry about primary challengers to their left. They remember how Sen. Joe Lieberman lost the Connecticut Democratic primary in 2006 because of his support for the Iraq war and had to run as an independent to keep his seat.
Moreover, the party is deeply divided, partly on generational lines. When the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 15 to 3 in May to authorize military aid for Syrian rebels, two of the three votes against came from younger liberal Democrats, Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Tom Udall of New Mexico. (The third no vote was Rand Paul, the libertarian Republican from Kentucky.) And in the House, at least 64 Democrats have signed a letter opposing any military strike that “could draw us into an unwise war.”
Republicans too know that their votes will have consequences. The party is more deeply divided over foreign policy than at any time in a generation. Hawks like McCain want the United States to do more in Syria, including larger arms shipments to the rebels and use of U.S. air power to impose a no-fly zone. Tea party conservatives like Paul want the United States to stay out of the conflict, and polls show that their stance is more popular among Republican voters. Their votes over this month’s resolution could turn into a prelude for a battle over GOP foreign policy in the presidential primaries of 2016, pitting Paul against interventionists such as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
The betting in Washington is that the Senate will pass a resolution authorizing military action, but only after amending Obama’s broadly worded proposal to impose time limits and prohibit any escalation without another debate. The House is harder to predict, even though Boehner, Pelosi and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., have all declared themselves in favor. The outcome could be something like the 1999 vote on then-President Bill Clinton’s airstrikes in Kosovo: a 213-213 tie.
Regardless of the outcome, the country stands to gain from this debate. We’re overdue for a serious national conversation on the stakes and scale of U.S. military action in Syria. And the vote will serve as a reminder that the constitutional power to declare war still rests with Congress — despite the liberties recent presidents have taken.
For two years, Obama has declared that toppling Syrian President Bashar Assad is an important goal, but he’s avoided giving a detailed explanation of a strategy to achieve that end. Now circumstances have forced his hand – and that’s a good thing too.
Doyle McManus is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times.