Obama on Syria: ‘Will make the best case I can’

Updated
Syrian residents cross from Syria into Turkey, near the town of Azaz in Syria September 5, 2013.
Syrian residents cross from Syria into Turkey, near the town of Azaz in Syria September 5, 2013.
Molhem Barakat/Reuters

President Obama returns to Washington Friday night ahead of what will be a crucial–and possibly final–week for the administration to convince a divided Congress to approve a military strike on the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

As Obama returns from several days abroad, he has gained few new global supporters, nor significant numbers in Congress, making the next few days all the more crucial for his team.

Just a week ago, the president stood in the White House Rose Garden and surprised many by saying instead of ordering the military action, he would ask Congress to vote on and approve the limited strike against Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons against his own people. The White House dispatched a draft resolution for force to Congress the same day and administration officials stepped briefings with congressional leaders over the long Labor Day weekend.

Top Cabinet members–Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel–pushed Obama’s agenda while testifying in front of both the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee this week, but they were met with opposition from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle demanding to know how a strike on Syria serves U.S. interests and what the endgame of any intervention would be.

The full, Democratic-controlled Senate could vote on the resolution approved by the Foreign Relations Committee (in a 10-7 vote) as early as next week–but more than half–52–are undecided, according to a Washington Post tally. But the House has not even marked up a resolution, and it could be the week of Sept. 16 before the lower chamber of Congress begins to debate.

The president’s team knows the pressure’s on. He’s cancelled his Monday and Tuesday trip to Los Angeles to stay in Washington to lobby lawmakers, and will make another public pitch to the American people in remarks from the White House this coming Tuesday.

“I will make the best case that I can,” Obama said from St. Petersburg, adding it was “conceivable” that he wouldn’t be successful in persuading a majority of Americans.

The president acknowledged the choice to intervene would be difficult, especially after the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I was elected to end wars, not start them. I’ve spent the last four and half years trying to reduce our reliance on military,” he said. “We have to make hard choices if we’re going to stand up for things we believe in, and I think this is one of those times.”

Obama said it would be a “heavy lift” to convince Congress given some lawmakers’ concern that a U.S. strike could embolden Assad to use chemical weapons again.

“Is it possible Assad doubles down in the face of our action and uses chemical weapons more widely? I suppose anything is possible,” the president said. “But it wouldn’t be wise.”

Opposition seems to be growing in the House as well. A resolution would fail if 217 of 433 lawmakers vote against it. According to the Post, 102 are against military action and 106 congressmen are leaning no. Meanwhile, just 24 are in favor of military action, and a substantial 155 remain undecided.

House Speaker John Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi are backing the president, but Democrat Pelosi recently admitted to Time that she doesn’t know if she can get a majority of her caucus to back Obama.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters on Friday that getting the filibuster-proof 60 votes for a resolution to strike Syria is a “work in progress,” but optimistically added, “I think we’re going to get 60 votes.”

Of course, even if both chambers of Congress approve a resolution, they’d have to agree on a single, joint compromise to move forward. That could delay the timeframe even further.

The stakes are big for Obama. If the president fails to make good on his desire for military action, his second term agenda on a diverse list of issues–immigration, passing a budget, Obamacare, climate change, and gun control–could be in peril. Embarrassed on Syria, he may have trouble using the bully pulpit to pressure lawmakers on other pressing issues.

Obama doesn’t necessarily need authorization from Congress to act. But politically, it could be a very unwise move, as polls show  Americans remain skeptical of any military escalation. And now that Obama has asked for permission, if Congress shoots him down, it would be awkward politically for him to override them.

The president, while in Russia for the G-20 summit, refused to say if he’d order the strikes without the green light from Congress.

“It would be a mistake for me to jump the gun and speculate,” he said.

Obama on Syria: 'Will make the best case I can'

Updated