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If Congress Says 'No' On Syria, What Happens Next?

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As our own Jennifer Bendery reported earlier on Friday, White House deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken gave an interview with National Public Radio, in which he said that if Congress does not ultimately give its blessing to using force in Syria, "it's neither [President Barack Obama's] desire nor intention to use that authority absent Congress backing him." There is, of course, a caveat: Blinken also said that the White House nevertheless believes that "the president...has the authority" to act unilaterally.

But let's say that things continue to go according to the current run of play and the votes come back no (an outcome that is likelier to happen in the House, though the Senate is not a done deal, either). What happens if Obama chooses to go with the will of Congress, as U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron did?

1. First, there will be a boatload of whining. If you recall, many of the soft and slackened armchair generalissimos of Sunday Morning Punditry reacted with a strong howl of derision when Obama announced that he was seeking Congress' approval in the first place. "This isn't a civics lesson, lives are at stake," bellowed Chris Wallace, who later complained, "But nothing's going to happen for 10 days!" Over at "Meet The Press," David Gregory, believing that Secretary of State John Kerry's case-making on Syria essentially made a new war a fait accompli, asked Kerry if Obama's decision to go to Congress made him "feel undermined."

Expect this to get 'roided up to a fare-thee-well if Obama decides to accept a "no" vote from Congress. The Beltway political reporter/pundit class is, after all, still on a decade-long break with seriousness when it comes to discussing war, and has been pounding its battle bongos over Syria for a while now. When you add the fact that it is also rather drunk on counterintuitiveness as a lifestyle choice, and prone to epic bouts of "leadership surrealism," you get a Wurlitzer defaming restraint running 24/7. Greg Sargent puts it best:

If Congress does say No, and if Obama listens — I see no reason to expect he won’t — it will set in motion a very interesting experiment. The roar of Obama-is-weak punditry — casting Obama as a lame duck who can’t get Congress to do anything, with grave consequences for the rest of his agenda – will be deafening, with few willing to point out that heeding Congress’ word is the right thing to do for the country. (Many are currently discussing the decision to go to Congress only in terms of motive and “optics” while refusing to comment on the substance of the decision itself.)

His parenthetical is actually the most important point -- the prism through which intervention in Syria will ultimately be viewed is one in which the Syrian people and U.S. soldiers (who we now refer to as "boots") are background abstractions in a grand carnival of "winners" and "losers" in Washington.

So, basically, the first thing that happens is that you get a red tide of media bullshit in every newspaper and every television.

2. Assad will probably crow about Congress returning a "no" vote.

Yeah, if you are an American who can't sleep at night because you are just so frightfully concerned about what brutal madman Bashar Assad thinks about your country, you are probably in for a rough ride. Chances are, if Congress opts to not grant Obama the authorization to use force, Assad will do a lot of triumphal yargling, and maybe preen for his Instagram account, in celebration. This is sort of inevitable.

Any such pronouncement from Assad will also contribute to the aforementioned "red tide of media bullshit," as cable news people and Sunday morning hosts throw Assad's rhetoric in the face of White House spokespeople. It's actually very amusing to me to listen to political reporters take what is essentially "Iraqi Information Minister" style propaganda, or playground taunts, and treat it as if it should be the prime mover of American foreign policy, but this is what happens. Chris Cillizza will probably write a blog post about how Assad had the "best week in Washington."

The mitigating factor here is that if Congress grants Obama its authorization, and we carry out our narrow, targeted, bombing campaign, there is still a likelihood that Assad will survive this, and he will just go right ahead and make the same triumphant yargles that he'd make if we don't end up doing anything, so this is basically a wash. Of course, in the event that he survives a bombing campaign to do further strutting, the media will treat it in the same way, making the implicit demand that more has to be done because we're not gonna sit here and take these taunts from Assad, are we? Are we?!?

And this is how pointless escalation and quagmires happen!

3. Events on the ground will continue to shape the debate.

If Congress eventually opts to not grant an authorization to use force, all is not lost for those hungry for war. Assad will continue to murder his own people, and perhaps even deploy chemical weapons to do so. And depending on what happens, Obama will always have the option to come back and take a second shot.

And there is an argument that Obama would be in a stronger position a second time around. One of the things you have to remember is that Obama, as commander in chief, is pretty much on the hook for any action taken in Syria. But the point of this authorization vote, at least politically, is to put Congress on the hook for the consequences of inaction. This is a classic "here is my idea, if you don't like it, what would you replace it with" maneuver. (Sens. Joe Manchin and Heidi Heitkamp, realizing this, have floated a sort-of-silly alternative bill that would give Assad 45 days to agree to a ban on chemical weapons, or else...well, I don't know what the "or else" here is. Presumably this gives the White House additional time to turn public opinion around on the targeted/limited airstrikes.)

So, if Congress votes no and a few thousand Syrians die in brutal fashion, Obama gets to come back with an "I told you so," and ask again. And he might prevail. Neil Irwin, who sees a lot of similarities between this authorization ask and the 2008 vote on the Troubled Asset Relief Program, recalls that TARP "initially failed in a House vote before being approved in slightly modified form a few days later." What helped that along was the continuing argument about the direness of the situation and enough modifications to elicit a slightly greater amount of trust in the elites making the case.

Of course, the seedy underside to this is that in order for the political calculus to change, a whole bunch of human beings halfway around the world have to die first.

4. There's always the chance that Obama will just say "piss it," and launch a military campaign against Syria anyway.

The White House's semi-official line on what happens if Congress doesn't endorse a military strike is that there is no semi-official line on what happens if Congress doesn't endorse a military strike. But just as Blinker, on Friday, "left the door open," Kerry has as well, saying that the White House reserves the right to act unilaterally "no matter what Congress does."

Should he do so, Obama will probably receive a hearty helping of valentines from the people in the media who would have otherwise defamed him for accepting Congress' verdict. At least up until things go sideways, that is, after which the chorale of criticism will return: "Those bombs would have hit their targets better if Obama had shown more leadership...Assad remains in power because the White House has bungled the 'narrative,'" et cetera.

The thing to remember, of course, is that if Obama goes it alone, he won't just be breaking with Congress -- he'll be breaking against the will of the American people, who oppose a military strike in Syria in large numbers. This is why Obama will attempt to make his case for military intervention in a primetime address this coming Tuesday night (remembering as always to not interrupt Monday night football to ask if it's okay with everyone if we go to war).

Are there consequences for going it alone? The New York Times' Peter Baker has some especially dark musings on the matter:

Although Mr. Obama has asserted that he has the authority to order the strike on Syria even if Congress says no, White House aides consider that almost unthinkable. As a practical matter, it would leave him more isolated than ever and seemingly in defiance of the public’s will at home. As a political matter, it would almost surely set off an effort in the House to impeach him, which even if it went nowhere could be distracting and draining.

So, there's that.

It should be noted that despite the fact that contemporaneous whip counts continue to break in favor of denying the authorization, the debate has by no means concluded and the effort to shift votes into the "yes" column continues. Greg Sargent, after speaking with a number of aides to Democrats in the House of Representatives on Wednesday, noted a number of factors that suggest the debate is still fluid:

Aides believe that many of those who say they are leaning No are not necessarily at that point. Aides believe there’s a lot of pressure on Dems — given the unpopularity of strikes with constituents, as reflected in the polls, and given some of the pressure being directed to offices by liberal groups — to downplay the possibility of a Yes vote later. So aides think the whip counts don’t tell the real story.

Furthermore, Sargent's sources indicate that there are still a substantial number of Democrats "who can still get to yes," and afford Obama the number of Democratic votes (Sargent reckons that the target is between 120 and 130 members) needed to secure the passage of the bill. According to Sargent, these Democrats are "gettable" due to a number of factors. There are those who might be "persuadable by groups like AIPAC," those whose moderate positioning allows them some distance from the threat of the Democratic anti-war base, and "several dozen hard-to-classify Dems who are more focused on domestic affairs."

"Dem aides think they can get the numbers they need even if around 60 progressive Dems prove ungettable," Sargent writes.

In terms of the politics, the optimal outcome for Obama is for the authorization to pass with substantial Democratic support. As former Defense Department official Rosa Brooks tells The New York Times, "If he ekes out a yes vote [without substantial Democratic support], he’s beholden to the Republicans."

Sargent also noted on Wednesday that the "majority of members still have not gotten a classified briefing" on the matter, contending that such briefings might alter the thinking of Congresscritters. The bad news on that front is that, according to Jake Tapper, CNN's Brianna Keilar is reporting that "the more House/Senate [Democrats] hear in [the intelligence] briefings, the less likely the seem to support" a military intervention in Syria.

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