President Barack Obama is playing a loser’s hand in his effort to convince Congress to authorize military intervention into Syria’s civil war.
His administration has released horrific tapes of the dead and the suffering from chemical-weapons attacks to heighten emotions. But unless something drastic changes in the coming days, he still will not likely get the votes he needs.
We knew all along that it was a terrible situation, and the tapes — as disturbing as they are — do not change the substance of the questions Obama still faces. What is his strategy and objective in Syria, the broader Middle East and northern Africa? How will he defeat radical Islamists? How will a limited attack change the dynamics in Syria? Most importantly, what comes next?
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He needs the support of four distinct constituencies before Congress will give him the green light, and none of them is inclined to back him right now.
The first group consists of liberal Democrats who are opposed to war under almost any circumstance, especially in a conflict in which we have so little vested and no clear outcome.
It is the height of irony that the president honored with the Nobel Peace Prize shortly after his inauguration is leading the effort to wage a conflict that has no direct benefit to American national security. This core constituency has not been swayed.
The second group includes the very same Republicans he has publicly ridiculed over the past several years when America was engaged in conflict.
Throughout his 2006 campaign for Senate and 2008 campaign for president, Obama and members of his current war cabinet harshly attacked them over their foreign policy.
He accused them of unilaterally striking our enemies (they built broad international coalitions), failing to present clear reasons for the use of force (the oppressive Taliban regime that harbored Osama bin Laden was removed from power in Afghanistan, and al-Qaeda was routed in Iraq), and failing to find weapons of mass destruction.
The verbal attacks continue even today, with Obama recently saying, “This is not Iraq, and this is not Afghanistan.” Continuing to belittle congressional Republicans is not helping him.
The third group is the international community.
Obama is trying to walk back a “red line” he created last summer over the use of chemical weapons, saying that it was the international community which set a “red line.”
Regardless of who said what and when, the international community is not convinced that Obama has a viable plan for action now. There is no U.N. resolution. There is no broad coalition.
Russian President Vladimir Putin says that he may actually support Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently testified that Russia may help to replace any military hardware destroyed by the strikes.
With an international community so deeply divided, it makes it even more difficult for the president to convince the most important group whose support he needs, a war-weary American people.
The American people are hesitant to support more warfare after a decade of fighting overseas and dismal economic conditions at home.
They look at Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, and Libya and see no “success.” The president tells them that now is the time to invest in America, not abroad. The economic recovery is weak. Americans are still hurting.
The U.S. military is the most dedicated and proficient armed force in the world, but they are our family, friends, and neighbors. The American people are cautious about sending them into harm’s way.
They rightfully ask why we should continue to risk their lives and spend more scarce resources on further conflict with no defined endgame.
Their concern is warranted. An attack ordered by Obama would most certainly result in a response. Seldom has a strike been precise and of limited duration. In reality a strike would lead to a series of actions and reactions that would drag out into a larger and deeper involvement.
The fact is that Obama has no laudatory goals or objectives for getting involved in Syria. Punishing Assad and degrading his capabilities are not lofty or worthy reasons to support a military intervention.
With the lack of clarity of mission and so many unanswered questions by every constituency, it is unlikely that the president will change enough minds to win this vote and is instead headed for a defeat in Congress.
Peter Hoekstra is the former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
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