Thursday’s stunning anti-war vote in the British Parliament, combined with growing U.S. opposition to further involvement in the Middle East, appears to leave the Obama administration at risk of being isolated on the world stage should it launch a salvo of cruise missiles at Bashar Assad’s Syrian regime.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, in a bid to gain Parliament’s endorsement, had promised to seek a second vote before undertaking any military operations. But even that watered down resolution was rejected by Parliament, 285 to 272. In a tersely worded statement after the vote, Cameron said that he realized the British people do not support military action in Syria.
That vote left the Obama administration as the only major-power government pushing for a military attack. Members of the Arab League have privately encouraged the United States to attack Assad, but have refused to publicly endorse military action.
The U.N. Security Council is deadlocked due to opposition from Russia and China. The French are waiting for U.N. inspectors now in Syria to announce their findings. Yet analysts consider it highly unlikely that the U.N. inspectors will be able to answer the most critical question of all, namely, who fired the nerve-gas laden missiles that have killed hundreds of civilians in Syria.
In Congress, bipartisan opposition to the drumbeat of conflict appears to be rising. Scores of House members have rallied behind a letter to the president from Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va., whose district includes a huge Navy base in Norfolk, Va.
The letter to President Obama warns: “Engaging our military in Syria when no direct threat to the United States exists and without prior congressional authorization would violate the separation of powers that is clearly delineated in the Constitution.”
Some 140 members of the House have co-signed that letter. Most worrisome to the Obama administration: 21 of the names are Democrats, a fact that gives Republicans more than enough cover to present the initiative as bipartisan.
"The president is not a dictator," Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., told Newsmax on Thursday in an exclusive interview. "He cannot just unilaterally decide to do this, because the threat is not to the United States."
The president also received a letter Wednesday from House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, urging him to "make the case to the American people and Congress for how potential military action will secure American national security interests, preserve America's credibility, deter the future use of chemical weapons, and, critically, be part of our broader policy and strategy."
For days, both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill have been openly complaining that the administration has not shared the intelligence that led Secretary of State John Kerry to proclaim Monday that the attack was a “moral obscenity.” That rhetoric, in light of President Obama’s previous warning to the Assad regime that chemical weapons were a “red line” in its battle with Sunni rebels, was widely assumed to foreshadow a coming attack.
Although Congress will not be in session until Sept. 9, several members of both parties have urged him to order members to return to Washington to begin deliberations over what should be done in Syria.
Even Democrats in the more deliberative upper chamber have begun to grumble about the administration’s approach. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said Thursday he hopes the president will submit any U.S. action to congressional review.
Another Democrat, Chris Murphy of Connecticut, questioned whether Syria’s brutal attacks on its own people could be considered a threat to the United States. The Washington Post reports that Democratic Sen. Timothy M. Kaine of Virginia has voiced doubts as well.
Facing a groundswell of rising resistance to more U.S. involvement the Middle East, the administration on Thursday afternoon dispatched officials to the Hill to brief congressional leaders on the intelligence on the gas attack. President Obama himself has begun to articulate the case for military action, stating that a “shot across the bow” could have “a positive impact on our national security over the long term.” That remark appears to refer to Iran, whose mullahs continue their headlong pursuit of nuclear enrichment. Analysts expect them to watch carefully to see whether U.S. saber-rattling is to be taken seriously.
Iran is a major supporter of Assad's Alawite regime. Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently warned that U.S. military intervention in Syria would be "a disaster for the region."
President Obama is not expected to consult with Congress if he decides to launch an attack. But that carries other risks, especially considering the president’s own marginal popularity ratings, and recent polls that indicate the American public is profoundly against more military action in the region.
A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that only 9 percent of voters say the Obama administration should take military action in Congress. Compare that to the 73 percent of Americans who supported attacking Iraq in 2003, or even the 47 percent who agreed with bombing Libya in 2011.
But if the president backs away from the conflict in light of the dearth of international and domestic support, U.S. deterrence could suffer a major setback. Rogue nations on the world stage such as Iran and Syria might well conclude the administration’s red lines are feckless, and rival powers China and Russia would be able to claim a clear victory over the United States in the realm of international diplomacy. At the very least, Obama could find himself on a fast-track to lame duck irrelevancy, analysts warn.
Hovering over the Syrian conflict is the specter of the West's involvement in Iraq. That war began with the widely held, but ultimately inaccurate, consensus that Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein harbored weapons of mass destruction. The legacy of Iraq, as well as other Western campaigns in the Middle East, appears to make a consensus on attacking Assad more difficult.
The hangover from Iraq is believed to have played a major role in the rejection of Cameron’s war plans.
"I am deeply mindful of the lessons of previous conflicts," Cameron told Parliament Wednesday. "This is not like Iraq. What we're seeing in Syria is fundamentally different."
Wolf has been a leading proponent of special congressional hearings to investigate the Benghazi debacle that left four Americans dead. While not ruling out the possibility that he might ultimately support a military response against Syria, Wolf voiced concern over the results of recent U.S. military campaigns in the Middle East.
"Things did not go well in Iraq, and things are still going poorly in Iraq," Wolf told Newsmax. "Things have not gone well in Afghanistan. Obama went in and dealt with the Libyan issue, which has created Benghazi — and we've seen what's taken place."
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