President Barack Obama
heads into the week facing a formidable hurdle, a test that could substantially affect the course of his Presidency, as he attempts to sell a reluctant Congress on the need for U.S. military action against Syria.
Obama must make a case that attacking Bashar al-Assad's regime in retaliation for its alleged use of chemical weapons during Syria's ongoing civil war is justified not only in defense of human rights but as a matter of national security. That could be a hard sell.
As Obama acknowledged during his Rose Garden speech last weekend, when he announced that he would seek congressional support for action against Syria, the nation is battle-fatigued after a dozen years of involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is no apparent groundswell for the United States to take on another battle in Syria, regardless of Obama's pledge not to involve ground troops there.
Complicating matters is the fact that the House is controlled by Republicans, including a sizeable contingent who view Obama as anathema and are likely to oppose any initiative he proposes. While Speaker of the House John Boehner has expressed support for action against Syria, his ability to lead his own caucus is questionable at best.
An Associated Press survey of Ohio's congressional delegation found no support for attacking Syria, except from Boehner, with Republicans and Democrats alike saying that they were undecided. Many were skeptical of the case for action against Assad.
First-term Republican Rep. Brad Wenstrup of Cincinnati, an Army Reserve officer and Iraq war veteran, said Obama hasn't clearly made his case. "This is about American lives being put into danger. He hasn't spelled things out in the way I would like to see. I also want to know what this has to do with U.S. national security."
Even if Obama finds a way of marshaling a majority in the House, he could face a challenge even in the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a potential GOP presidential candidate in 2016, has threatened a filibuster, and some contend that a supermajority of three-fifths of its members may be needed on a vote on Syria.
The president, leaving the G-20 Summit in Russia Friday, admitted that he faces a struggle. "It's conceivable at the end of the day I don't persuade a majority of the American people that it's the right thing to do," he said.
Unspoken was the possibility that Obama may go ahead and take action against Syria even if he is rebuffed by Congress. While he may have the power to do so, spurning Congress could have lasting ramifications for Obama's agenda for the remaining three years of his presidency.
According to an Associated Press poll of the House, only 22 members have publicly backed a resolution to attack Syria; 96 oppose Obama's plan and 89 say they are leaning against it.
For Obama to succeed, he will need to win over 90 percent of the undecided House members or change the minds of those who are now leaning against him. That's a tall order.
The president will take his case to the American people Tuesday in a speech to the nation. He will need to spell out as clearly as possible why it is in the national interest to initiate an act of war against Syria. If he is unable to do so, he's likely to find the numbers solidly stacked against him when the votes are counted in Congress.