August 31, 2013 11:39 pm

 
Barack Obama’s dramatic gamble on Syria
 
US president risks getting into a game of poker he cannot control
 
 
In baseball, they call it comingfrom left field”. President Barack Obama’s decision on Saturday to seek Congress’s approval for strikes on Syria ranks as the least expected moment of his presidency – and probably his riskiest.
 
His immediate fortunes are now in the hands of two very unfriendly entities: the Assad regime in Syria and the Republican Party on Capitol Hill. Both have been handed their leverage. Neither can be relied upon to use it predictably. There can be little doubt that Mr Obama is entering the most dangerous phase of his presidency, to some degree voluntarily.
 
First, the positive side. Mr Obama’s request, which Congress will only debate in the week beginning September 9, has bought him time to push for a diplomatic solution. On Tuesday Mr Obama travels to Petersburg for the G20 conference. Last month he turned down an invitation by Vladimir Putin to hold a bilateral meeting in Moscow after the summit. By postponing the Syria strikes for at least 10 days, Mr Obama has a window to talk to Mr Putin, the Chinese, the Arab League and other key actors.
 
Hopefully he can prove that diplomacy works with the threat of action. That would be a triumph. But it would be optimistic to suppose Mr Putin and the like will take Mr Obama’s threat of missile strikes seriously before Congress has authorised them. Until then, Mr Obama cannot afford to spend too much time out of Washington. Nor can his principals, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, secretaries of state and defence, both of whom will need to testify to Congress.

To be sure, Mr Obama is betting he will get the green light from both houses, as George W. Bush did for the 2002 bill authorising the Iraq war, and as George H.W. Bush didthough by a far narrower Senate majority – for the first Iraq war in 1990. No president has been turned down since the War Powers Act passed in 1973though few have bothered to ask.

Should Mr Obama get his authorisation next week, or the week after, he will emerge stronger both at home and abroad. At home, he will have acquired co-ownership with Congress of whatever subsequently happens in Syria. At a moment when large majorities of Americans are sceptical of any military action against Syria, Mr Obama’s instinct is to make it bipartisan. And abroad, it will strengthen his credibility too. A yes vote would demonstrate US exceptionalism at its bestburying its political differences to respond to the barbaric gassing of hundreds of innocent foreign children.
 
That is the plan. But after the UK parliament’s no vote last week, it is hard to feel confident that it will go to script. The mathematics in both the Democratic and Republican parties are too fluid to forecast a clear majority, even though that must still be the probability. There will be plenty of Republican hawks, such as John McCain, and reliable Democratic centrists, such as Max Baucus, in favour of the bill. They will be joined by some liberal hawks, such as Nancy Pelosi, Democratic House leader.
 
But isolationist Tea Party Republicans have teamed up with Democratic liberals in the past to defeat legislation. It is not inconceivable they will do so again. A defeat would be disastrous for Mr Obama, who would then have to choose between flouting the will of Congress or becoming a lame duck on the global stage.

We must assume the White House is able to count votes better than David Cameron. The alternative is too dire. Either way, Washington is about to be consumed by a debate about America’s role in the world and the future of Mr Obama’s presidency.

Assuming Mr Obama is less incompetent that Mr Cameron, by far his biggest hurdle will come on the ground afterwards in the Middle East. Colin Powell once said of Iraq, “you broke it, you own it”.

If Mr Obama gets the approval he wants, then from that moment on the US will own what happens in Syria. This is Mr Obama’s real gamble. Could he be subconsciously hoping that Congress votes no, as some have somewhat wildly suggested? Or has the UK vote, among other twists, made him far less reluctant on Syria than he was?

Whatever is bolstering Mr Obama’s resolve for war, that is the course he is asking America to approve. Last Friday, Mr McCain spoke for many when he dismissed the UK parliament’s vote as a “symbol of Britain’s withdrawal as a power”. That may well be right, although the last time the UK stood aside from a US war was in Vietnam – a quagmire that helped sink two presidencies and haunted most of their successors. It was arguably the costliest military blunder in US history.

Mr Obama can count upon the backing of many McCains in the coming days. There is a still a strong establishment consensusprobably a clear majority – for the US to play the world’s policeman. But much as Lyndon Johnson hoped escalation in Vietnam would help him get out quicker, Mr Obama risks getting into a game of poker that he cannot control. He would of course be doing so in tandem with Congress. And it would be with the best of intentions. But that is no insurance against the unexpected. For better or worse, Mr Obama is gambling his presidency on Syria.

 
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2013

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