Obama pays high political price for fumbling on Syria

The White House is backing away from unpopular military strikes, but potential resolutions are laden with risk

President Barack Obama continues to face opposition, both on Capitol Hill and around the country, to his plans for dealing with Syria.
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WASHINGTON — The Obama administration may have found a temporary way to stave off defeat on the question of Syria, but the long-term political prognosis for the president’s handling of the crisis is dimmer: He will not emerge unscathed from one of the biggest foreign policy challenges of his time in office.

For the moment, the administration has pulled back from its original proposal to launch limited air strikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in the face of mounting opposition on Capitol Hill and around the country. In a prime-time address Tuesday night, the president asked Congress to postpone votes on a possible strike as the administration vetted a diplomatic solution put forward by Russia at the United Nations that would allow Syria to avert the attack by turning over its chemical weapons stockpiles to international control. Nine senators, meanwhile, worked on an alternate resolution to put Congress’ stamp of approval on the new international plan.

The speech on Tuesday night capped off weeks of dizzying developments on Syria during which Obama seemed to be walking a tightrope -- selling the idea of military force to a war-weary public and Congress while also feverishly trying to avoid it.

“Obviously, this has not been well handled, and the president’s made a couple of 180-degree turns, from the 'red line' to doing nothing to then the military action, and now this diplomatic solution,” said Larry Sabato, political scientist at the University of Virginia. “Here’s his problem: Democrats, Republicans, conservatives, liberals, independents are all opposed to going into Syria. Good luck.”

Sabato said that the diplomatic solution looks like the best exit strategy for the president but that there have already been holes punched in his credibility. “Some damage is done because he does look indecisive,” Sabato said.

All probable resolutions are still rife with peril for a president who was elected, as he said last week, “to end wars, not start them.”

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A diplomatic agreement with Russia and Syria will allow the White House to save face and scrap an intensely unpopular plan for military action but will almost certainly be viewed by some as a retreat. There are legitimate questions about how such disarmament would work in practice and whether Syria or Russia should be trusted.

If Obama overrides Congress and pursues strikes over lawmakers' objections, he would burn all good will with a body he must work with to reach a deal on the debt ceiling and pass a budget in the fall. There would also almost certainly be increased rumblings about impeachment proceedings if, after extolling the virtues of a constitutional democracy, he decided to do as he wanted.

Public-opinion polls showed disapproval of the strikes actually hardening as Obama pushed for authorization. A poll released by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press Monday showed American opposition to the strikes surging within the last week from 48 percent to 63 percent. The president's approval rating is also in negative territory at 44 percent, with only a third of Americans favoring his approach to foreign policy -- an all-time low.

Opponents of the administration seized on the less-than-flattering moment to criticize Obama's entire approach to engaging with the world as well as his blunders on Syria.

“The world just hasn’t cooperated with the president’s vision or his hopes,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on the Senate floor Tuesday shortly after announcing that he would oppose the strikes. “We’ve learned the hard way that being nice to our enemies doesn’t make them like you.”

During a testy exchange at a House Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday morning, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., rebuked Secretary of State John Kerry for the administration’s course changes. When Kerry said the Senate was delaying votes in light of a possible diplomatic resolution, Miller interjected, “Because they don’t have the votes, Mr. Secretary. That’s why they’ve delayed. You know that.“

Fire came from usually friendly quarters too. Liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., assailed the president and Congress for not focusing on a domestic agenda. “What about our kids?” he asked. “What kind of future are they going to have in a country where the middle class continues to disappear?”

Obama’s priorities are indeed on hold for the short term. Immigration reform has not been discussed at all this week, and even pressing debt-ceiling negotiations are on the back burner.

Ron Bonjean, a former GOP aide to House and Senate leadership, said the president has weakened his hand on upcoming issues by burning his political capital on Syria.

“If members of Congress are willing to stand up to him on Syria, and it looks like they can win, then there’s no reason they wouldn’t take him on other issues as well -- over the debt ceiling and the budget talks that will happen this fall,” said Bonjean. “Accidental diplomacy,” he said, was no way to exude leadership.

Some of the president’s allies said he had shown strength but that a diplomatic solution would be in the administration’s best interest.

“The president is going to be fine. He has stood strong, he got (Osama) bin Laden and he has not wavered one bit,” Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., told Al Jazeera America. “If this deal goes through, and I think it will, because I think the president will make it go through … he will look like a hero.”

Sabato too said that it would be premature to predict doom for the rest of the Obama term.

“It’s too soon to say, and people are always too quick to extrapolate the rest of the year, the rest of the term,” he said. "He has three and a half years left, and a million things could happen between now and then."

Kaelyn Forde contributed reporting

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