To use a poker term, President Barack Obama has decided to go all in on launching a military strike against Syria. Late last month, he'd seemed determined to strike Syria on his own authority. Then came Saturday's sudden and awkward reversal of announced plans, with the president taking the belated but correct course of seeking congressional authorization.
That strategy is not without risk.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has urged Obama – already open to charges of vacillation – to take even tougher measures than the planned limited strike. At a minimum, McCain and his fellow hawk, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., want to see the United States wipe out Syria's air power and air defenses and deliver more powerful offensive weapons to the rebels.
A congressional vote against Obama's request "would be catastrophic in its consequences" for U.S. credibility, McCain told reporters Monday after he and Graham met with the president.
The catastrophe in believability would not be so much for the country but for Obama personally and his administration as a whole. A "no" vote would give Obama a much-diminished voice on the world stage.
The White House campaign to build congressional support got off to a strong start when House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Republican leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, both often at odds with the president, endorsed a strike against Syria. Boehner said it was something "the United States as a country needs to do."
Boehner faces the toughest selling job in backing Obama. The Democratic-controlled Senate is unlikely to repudiate its own president. But the more fractious and less disciplined House spans libertarians who are opposed to any intervention abroad and hard-core Tea Party-movement supporters who would be opposed to a strike on Syria simply because Obama is for it.
The administration plans a full-court press on Capitol Hill, with classified briefings for lawmakers by Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and a host of lesser national-security officials in advance of the vote, expected next week.10 comments on this story
Obama has said that any U.S. operations in Syria would be limited in "scope and duration," but that choice may be out of his hands once the first missiles are fired. Syrian President Bashar Assad would still retain some capacity to use chemical weapons against the civilian population.
Dempsey says the U.S. has "additional options" if Assad launches retaliatory strikes, but that would entail widening the war and escalating the U.S. role. To continue the poker analogy, once Obama embarks on this course of action, the U.S. cannot simply stand up and walk away from the table.