Obama's Sweeping Attack on the Syria Vote Is Becoming a Quagmire

To assure passage of a resolution supporting action in Syria — to win the war on Capitol Hill — Obama needs to gain ground. So far, movement has been in the opposite direction, even as proponents ramp up their assault plans for both Damascus and D.C.

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This has been the strategy to date for proponents of strikes against Syria: overwhelming force. Attack Democrats with tactical John Kerry strikes. Hold bilateral negotiations with his Republican enemies. Consider a forceful propaganda push focused on the American public, as former adviser David Axelrod suggested again this morning. To assure passage of a resolution supporting action in Syria — to win the war on Capitol Hill — Obama needs to gain ground, to push forward, given the strength of the opposition to his efforts. So far, movement has largely been in the opposite direction, even as the president and his political allies ramp up their assault plans for both Damascus and D.C.

"[A]fter much thought, deliberation and prayer," said Rep. Michael Grimm of New York on Thursday, "I am no longer convinced that a U.S. strike on Syria will yield a benefit to the United States that will not be greatly outweighed by the extreme cost of war." As far as we can determine, this is the first time a non-leadership member of Congress has changed his mind about Syria, and it's not the sort of change that the president would like to see.

Grimm's switch was predicated on the idea that, by discussing the scope of action, the administration gave up its tactical advantage in an unacceptable way. But it's likely that Grimm's decision was also motivated by pressure from constituents. Most elected officials have reported overwhelming opposition from constituents which, although anecdotal, can be persuasive. A video of Senator John McCain of Arizona being confronted by constituents on Syria (at right) gained some attention on Thursday — primarily because even the constituents of one of the biggest hawks on Capitol Hill disagree with his pro-attack position.

In an opinion piece in Friday's Washington Post, Major General Robert Scales, former head of the Army War College, wrote the sort of blistering argument that might make even McCain hesitant.

I can justifiably share the sentiments of those inside the Pentagon and elsewhere who write the plans and develop strategies for fighting our wars. …

They are embarrassed to be associated with the amateurism of the Obama administration’s attempts to craft a plan that makes strategic sense. None of the White House staff has any experience in war or understands it. So far, at least, this path to war violates every principle of war, including the element of surprise, achieving mass and having a clearly defined and obtainable objective.

Proponents revise tactics

Given their difficult position, advocates are revising tactics. AIPAC, the 800-pound gorilla of Congressional lobbying, plans to unleash a massive effort to persuade members to vote for action. "Officials say that some 250 Jewish leaders and AIPAC activists will storm the halls on Capitol Hill beginning next week," Politico reports, "to persuade lawmakers that Congress must adopt the resolution or risk emboldening Iran’s efforts to build a nuclear weapon. … [F]ailing 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."

That's the frontal attack approach. Two moderate Democratic senators offer a different strategy, one that they presumably hope might assuage some concerns of people like Gen. Scales. Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota suggest setting an ultimatum for Assad, giving him 45 days to sign the international ban on chemical weapons, or then face attack. In other words: Make a stronger play for both a specific rationale for an attack and for increased international acceptance of one.

The international push moves into reverse

On Thursday, the American ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, railed against Russian obstructionism that she blamed for preventing the international community from supporting the U.S.' efforts. "In the wake of the flagrant shattering of internatioinal norms," Power said, "Russia continues to hold the [U.N. Security] Council hostage and shirk its international responsibility." As the president's trip to the G20 summit in St. Petersburg has made clear, though, it's not only Russia that is being obstructive. Time reports on what it calls the "clearest blow to U.S. coalition-building at the summit."

In a briefing on Thursday afternoon, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso said the Syrian conflict was a "stain on the world’s conscience," but stressed that the E.U. believes in a "political solution" to the crisis. Standing beside him, E.U. President Herman van Rompuy drove this point home. "There is no military solution to the Syrian conflict. Only a political solution can end the terrible bloodshed," he said.

Obama is not chastened. A report in The New York Times suggests that, even as the battle on Capitol Hill and internationally turns against him, the president is expanding the number of targets in any eventual assault.

Mr. Obama, officials said, is now determined to put more emphasis on the "degrade" part of what the administration has said is the goal of a military strike against Syria — to "deter and degrade" Mr. Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons. That means expanding beyond the 50 or so major sites that were part of the original target list developed with French forces before Mr. Obama delayed action on Saturday to seek Congressional approval of his plan.

That expansion includes the use of aircraft strikes — substantially increasing the risk of escalation, given the possibility of a plane being downed in Syrian territory.

To get to that point, however, the president first likely (but not necessarily, in his opinion) needs to win the battle on Capitol Hill. There, too, he's expanded his plans. He can only hope that a victory against his D.C. opponents would be the more difficult, frustrating, and prolonged part of any military action against Syria. Part of the reason for his political problems is that there's little reason to think it will be.

Photos via Associated Press.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.