On the Jewish calendar, the current days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are known as the ‘Yamim Nora’im’: the Days of Awe. Traditionally considered the days on which G’d ordains matters of life and death for the coming year, the Yamim are filled with fear and trembling, as every individual inspects her soul, seeks forgiveness, and reflects with trepidation on the gravity of what is at stake.
These are ‘Days of Awe’ for Obama, too. We are at the eve of Congress’s vote on the Syria, which Obama freely elected to have, and which this week might turn into one of his Presidency’s major setbacks. Thus far Obama has secured support from leaders both of his own party and the Republican opposition– from Pelosi and Reid to Cantor and Boehner. But this may well prove insufficient. The House Republicans, which have haunted Obama throughout his Presidency, may well choose to embrace the populist temptation of landing Obama a stinging blow, supported in the back by the isolationist streak popular among Americans since Iraq.
As such, it is a good time to reflect on the startling risks Obama has taken by referring his Syria decision to Congress.
First let’s consider the self-made muddle in which Obama finds himself at this moment. For years, and in the face of withering pressure from liberals and conservatives alike, Obama has preached caution with regard to Syria, personally inculcating the American people with a sense of moral ambiguity concerning the Syrian rebellion, and a fear of getting the US involved. And now, after all of Obama’s admonitions about Jihad and Al Qaeda, suddenly he expects Americans to forget all that and support involvement in Syria after all? Not a chance.
Moreover, Obama could easily have foreseen the difficulties he would face in the House. Did he really expect the House’s collection of Tea Partiers and Paul-style isolationists to stand against American public opinion and forego a chance to ruin the Obama-administration’s foreign policy agenda? I don’t think so.
Finally Obama has had to call in the support of the parties he previously precisely sought to confront, in particular the pro-Israel advocacy groups. It is now AIPAC and like-minded organizations that are on the Hill lobbying for Obama’s resolution; should they pull through for him, no doubt there will be a price to pay (more on AIPAC’s pro-Obama stance below).
Second, let us ask: what will happen if Obama’s resolution to strike Syria does fail? In a word, the consequences will be ruinous.
For years Obama has tried to leverage a threat of US involvement over Assad and his allies in order to secure some sort of settlement. In a whisk, all those implicit warnings will go up on smoke.
And what are Syria’s rebels supposed to think? In a flash, it will be clear Obama simply does not have the power to back up his threats to Assad, and that Al Qaeda may just be their best bet.
Or what to think of Iran? Since the beginning of his administration Obama has sought to quiet Israeli concerns about Iran with firm commitments that the US will not allow the dawn of an Iranian nuke. But if Obama cannot even get support for lobbing a few harmless cruise missiles in Syria’s direction, what chance does he stand of completing a much more complicated and perilous strike against Iran, should the occasion arise? Chances are Israel will hear the message loud and clear, and commit to a strike of its own.
In a word, should Obama be defeated, his intended foreign policy posture of diplomatic engagement paired to the ever-present threat of force will seem undone in a single stroke, and America will seem at one of its weakest and indecisive foreign policy junctures in a long time. (Indeed, here’s a speculative prediction: the consequences of suffering defeat in Congress might seem so grave for Obama, that, should it occur, he may in fact feel compelled to immediately undo them. Ironically, this could mean swift and aggressive action against Assad— perhaps not through American cruise missiles, ruled out by Congress, but for example through the immediate ratcheting up of military support for the rebels. Better to disregard Congress, Obama might think, than face paralyzing weakness and an Israeli-Iranian all-out war.)
Finally there is a second party that stands great risks with tomorrow’s vote in Congress: Israel and its supporters in American politics, specifically AIPAC.
Much the same that goes for Obama in fact goes for Israel. For many months Israel was explicitly on the fence about Syria— fearing Assad and Hezbollah, but dreading equally the presence of Al Qaeda on its borders. With Assad’s use of chemical weapons, however, suddenly Israel’s calculation has changed, and the emphasis has come to lie on Iran and specifically on Obama enforcing his ‘red lines’. It is therefore no surprise that many Americans who consider themselves supporters of Israel, including the House Republicans, are genuinely confused about the Israeli preference in favor of increased action in Syria.
Moreover, Israel and AIPAC may well seem to be putting House Republicans in a difficult spot: Republicans have for years tried to use support for Israel as a leverage against Obama, and now Israel repays them by supporting Obama and allowing him to look strong and decisive? This is not even to mention Israel’s place with the American public, which largely opposes a Syrian strike.
And just as is the case for Obama, the consequences for Israel should Congress reject Syrian action are grave. Israel and AIPAC will have conspicuously failed in a lobbying effort, tarnishing their status of near-invincibility. Moreover, and more seriously, Israel will find itself isolated and alone in the Middle East: facing a surging Hezbollah, a growing Sunni Jihadi movement, and a gloating Iran—all on its own.