White House Talks Strategy for Confronting Congress on Syria

With his credibility on the line, President Barack Obama has turned to an unlikely ally — the U.S. Congress — to worm his way out of his Syria conundrum, betting on browbeating Congress to support intervention.

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Charles Dharapak / AP

President Barack Obama makes a statement about the crisis in Syria in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington on Aug. 31, 2013

With his credibility on the line, President Barack Obama has turned to an unlikely ally — the U.S. Congress — to worm his way out of his Syria conundrum, betting on browbeating Congress to support intervention.

“[The use of chemical weapons] endangers our friends and our partners along Syria’s borders, including Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq,” Obama said Saturday in the Rose Garden at the White House, referring to the Syrian chemical attack on Aug. 21. “It could lead to escalating use of chemical weapons, or their proliferation to terrorist groups who would do our people harm.”

Senior Administration officials plainly described the politics of Obama’s decision Saturday to seek congressional approval for a military strike, saying it shifts the burden to an unpopular Congress to make a decision about intervention in Syria, after more than a week of congressional lawmakers dominating the airwaves and newsprint with calls for a vote. In the Administration’s view, most of these lawmakers are simply taking advantage of the situation to score political points on the President and don’t actually want to go on the record on such an unpopular issue.

(MORE: Unwilling to Act Alone, Obama Pulls Back From Brink of War)

The choice for lawmakers is between going against the will of the majority of Americans and bombing Syria or refusing to use force against a dictator whose regime has killed tens of thousands of civilians and who appears to have deployed weapons of mass destruction in full view of the international community.

But Obama is not content to let lawmakers decide alone. He plans to put his finger on the scale. Officials said Saturday that rejecting the use of military force would send the wrong signal to Assad, Iran, and terrorist groups — and increase the specter of chemical weapons proliferation — a weight that the White House intends to place on an already unpopular Congress if they vote down the resolution.

“Politically smart,” assessed one senior GOP aide. “It gets everyone into the pool despite the increasingly cold water.”

Additionally, the Administration officials emphasized the risk to Israel, support for whom lawmakers often trip over themselves to demonstrate, from Iran if Assad goes unpunished and a precedent is set. If Congress shoots it down, a hypothetical that Administration officials won’t yet address, then Obama will hope to use that vote to bash lawmakers through the midterms.

(MORE: Three Reasons Congress May Not Approve War in Syria)

Some Democrats, meanwhile, are flabbergasted by the decision for Obama to throw his lot in with Congress, a body that has burned him at every turn throughout his Administration.

“I am dumbfounded that he has decided to ask Congress for support,” said Jim Manley, a former longtime aide of Senate majority leader Harry Reid. “After all, implicit is the idea that House Republicans will give such a request the due consideration it deserves, and I don’t believe the House, dominated by the Tea Party, is capable of that. As long as the request has been made, I hope that leaders of both bodies will call their members back as quickly as possible.”

Manley was not alone. “After watching a month of Republican town-hall discussions on impeachment, defunding the government, the unemployed as drug users etc., I’m not confident there are enough members of Congress left to make a rational decision,” Rodell Mollineau, another former Reid aide and the president of American Bridge 21st Century, tells TIME.

On Saturday, Obama formally requested an Authorization for Use of Military Force to deploy American forces as he sees fit in Syria with the aim of preventing the use or proliferation of chemical weapons. “We don’t have good options, great options, for the region,” Obama told PBS NewsHour on Aug. 28. “But what I am clear about is that if the United States stands by its core values and its core interests.”

In the meantime, the Obama Administration is in a familiar role — that of Salesman in Chief. In the coming days, officials will hold both classified and unclassified briefings for lawmakers on Capitol Hill. But Obama will also try to sell the American people on the effort. “We cannot raise our children in a world where we will not follow through on the things we say, the accords we sign, the values that define us,” Obama said.

While the Administration is convinced that a vote against intervention will blowback on Congress, Obama’s fortunes would be no rosier, even if he decided to strike anyway as aides refuse to rule out. After redlines and near action, Obama is risking being publicly rebuked by Congress, a development that would make him look like a lame duck not just at home, but on the international stage as well.

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