Why Boehner had 'no choice' but to support Obama on Syria

In a hyperpartisan Washington, House Speaker John Boehner backing President Obama on anything seems extraordinary. But in the case of Syria, not backing him could be worse.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Obama (r.) talks with House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio prior to speaking to media in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington Tuesday to discuss the situation in Syria.

When House Speaker John Boehner came out Tuesday in support of President Obama’s call to action in Syria – followed quickly by the No. 2 House Republican, Eric Cantor – Washington erupted in gasps.

How often, after all, in the hyperpartisan world of the nation’s capital, does that happen on any issue?

But really, the show of national unity over proposed military action in Syria, following that country’s alleged use of chemical weapons against its own people, isn’t all that surprising, analysts say.

“They [Republican House leaders] really had no choice – that’s my sense,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “I think they understood what [Republican Sen. John] McCain said yesterday – that to say no, as the British Parliament did, would be a devastating blow to American credibility.”

But it’s also clear, in light of two new polls out Tuesday, that Mr. Obama has his work cut out in convincing the American public – and by extension, Congress – that military involvement in yet another country is a good idea.  

A survey by the Pew Research Center taken Aug. 29 to Sept. 1 finds both “broad concern over the possible consequences of military action in Syria and little optimism it will be effective,” the Pew report says.

Nearly half the American public – 48 percent – opposes military airstrikes against Syria over its reported use of chemical weapons, versus 29 percent of Americans who support such action.

An ABC News poll found both greater opposition and greater support, with 59 percent of Americans opposing unilateral missile strikes and 36 percent in support. The poll, taken Aug. 28 to Sept. 1, also showed that if the US works in alliance with other countries, support for action rises to 46 percent, with 51 percent opposing. France has said it is willing to participate.

The House Republican leaders made clear in their statements Tuesday that the burden is on Obama to convince members of Congress from both parties that US military involvement in Syria’s civil war is a good idea.

“Understanding that there are differing opinions on both sides of the aisle, it is up to President Obama to make the case to Congress and to the American people that this is the right course of action, and I hope he is successful in that endeavor,” Representative Cantor said in a statement.

On Saturday, Obama surprised the world by saying he would seek authorization from Congress before using force against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, even though he believes he has the right to act without Congress’s approval. The move to win congressional buy-in represents a gamble for a president, who has struggled to advance his second-term agenda via legislative action on a host of issues.

Almost 200 members of Congress – more Republicans than Democrats – had signed letters to Obama saying the Constitution required congressional approval before he could launch military action. So while Obama rejects the idea that such approval is required, he has satisfied the demand for congressional involvement, and perhaps called some members’ bluff.

Obama also has history on his side. Congress has never rejected a president’s request for military force, said Richard Grimmett, a former international security specialist for the Congressional Research Service, in an interview with Bloomberg News.

History also shows US public support for military action grows once an operation is underway.

In his remarks Saturday, Obama acknowledged the American public’s war-weariness, after more than a decade at war, and pledged to keep action in Syria targeted.

“This would not be an open-ended intervention, we would not put boots on the ground,” Obama said. “Instead, our actions would be designed to be limited in duration and scope.”

The president did not say what he would do if Congress voted against authorization. But a defeat would clearly be devastating to his prestige, both in Washington and on the world stage. Conversely, victory in Congress would bolster his image as a leader, and could boost his capital as he heads toward tough negotiations over funding the government and lifting the debt ceiling.

Tuesday night, Obama leaves the country for three days – first to Sweden and then Russia for the G20 economic summit. By absenting himself from Washington, he may in fact help his cause in getting the Syria measure through Congress. Obama often complains that some Republicans oppose anything he is for, and so leaving the lobbying to others could prove fruitful.

Throughout the week, all members of Congress are invited to administration briefings on the situation in Syria, including detailed intelligence on the alleged attack. Senior aides to the president told reporters last Saturday that they would offer several arguments for military action: that it would show support for its ally Israel; that American legitimacy is at stake; and that if the use of chemical weapons goes unanswered, they could be used against the United States some day.

On Aug. 21 the Syrian government allegedly used deadly sarin gas that killed some 1,400 people. A year ago, Obama said use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would cross a “red line,” suggesting US retaliation. A failure to act would render the president’s words hollow, supporters of military action say.

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