In his op-ed piece in the NYT on Sept. 8, 2013, “The Syria Babble We Don’t Need,” Frank Bruni wrote that “The media has a wearying tendency — a corrosive tic — to put everything that happens in Washington through the same cynical political grinder, subjecting it to the same cynical checklist of who’s up, who’s down, … what it all means for control of Congress after the midterms, what it all means for control of the White House two years later.” I agree that this can be really annoying, and that the substantive content of news reporting often suffers on account of this tendency. On the other hand, we wouldn’t want to go too far in the other direction. The constant awareness of and speculation about the motives of news makers, although a cynical exercise, protects the public from being manipulated by those who may not have the public interest at heart. (I strongly suspect that the lapse of the media’s vigil contributed to the Iraq antics of the Bush 43 administration.)
With this in mind, I wonder what calculations President Obama made when he decided to ask Congress for authorization of military action in Syria. Lack of public support is well documented, and the resistance of many Republicans (and even some Democrats) must have been anticipated. Even if his personal interpretation of the US Constitution dictated that military action should have Congressional approval, the political costs if his request were rejected would be large: it would convey a sense of weakness to voters, it would set an even more negative tone for the remainder of his term, and it would likely detract from Democratic outcomes in the midterm elections. I doubt that he had anticipated Kerry’s off-hand remarks about Assad surrendering his chemical weapons and Putin’s proposal for negotiations over the international control of Syria’s stockpile. (See “Analysis: How Kerry’s Off-hand Remark Put a Deal on Syria in Play.”) Did President Obama really put principle over politics?
Possibly, but one other things occurs to me. He might have anticipated that his proposal for military action would fail to gain Congressional approval. Of course, he could try to spin this as another case of Republican obstructionism, but that kind of message wouldn’t be likely to register with voters any more than it has in the past. Until Assad used chemical weapons again. If thousands more civilians, including children, were killed by chemical agents again — after Congress rejected military action to prevent such killing — then it wouldn’t be difficult to shift blame for those deaths to Congress (primarily Republicans). I think that kind of message would likely register with voters, and it could have justified unilateral action by the President and turned momentum against his opponents. Interestingly, if this speculation is correct, then it may be that President Obama is actually unhappy with Kerry’s remarks and Putin’s suggestion for a peaceful resolution. But that’s very cynical.