09/10/2013 02:13 pm ET Updated Nov 10, 2013

How Obama Could Lose the Syria Vote and Still Emerge a Winner

Real leaders know how to turn defeat into victory.

That's something President Barack Obama might keep in mind as we move toward a congressional vote authorizing military action against Syria's Assad regime. Vote counters on Capitol Hill say the issue is too close to call, which is why the White House has launched an all-out effort to win over undecided lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Meanwhile, the latest CNN poll finds that 55% of the American people are solidly against any U.S. intervention in the Syrian civil war, while only 40% would approve, providing no ground troops are committed. In the end, that public sentiment may exert a more decisive influence over the congressional vote than all the Administration's arguments.

Clearly, the president is right about the character of Assad and his regime--they're a murderous bunch of thugs. Clearly, he's right that Assad's use of poison gas violates international norms and treaties in force since the end of World War I. He may be right that targeted air strikes are the best way to respond to Assad's atrocity--or he may not be. When both Vladimir Putin and the Pope are on the other side of the issue, it ought to give you pause. Moreover, the sort of intervention Obama proposes might make things worse. At the very least it could have unpredictable consequences. There are no good--or even easy--answers here.

Yet, the President goes on insisting that his is the only moral and practical course. I'm reminded of a bit of instructive rhyme my father used to recite to me: "Here lies Mr. McVeigh, who died defending his right of way."

Actually, if the chief executive wanted to demonstrate real bipartisan leadership rather than the sort of inflexibility that leads you to insist you have the right of way, even if it kills you, he should even now be anticipating defeat and formulating a winning "Plan B." By bringing both parties' leaders together on a morning-after-the-vote strategy, President Obama can lose the Syrian intervention vote and still emerge looking like a strong rather than a wounded leader. That's important because, when it comes to leadership, the perception of strength is as important as the real thing.

Even now, the president ought to be meeting with both Democratic and Republican congressional leaders to win prior agreement on what do about Syria if and when authorization for an air strike is denied. The right agreement would be good for both parties--and the country. Such a plan might have three components:

First, the Administration should throw itself whole heartedly behind the suggestion first advanced by Secretary of State John Kerry and endorsed Monday by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that Syria put its chemical weapons under international control and then destroy them. Moscow sees early signs the Assad regime may agree and that would be the best of all foreseeable outcomes.

A second component should be humanitarian, and could take the money that would have spent on the air strikes and channel it instead to the estimate 2 million Syrian refugees now sheltering in neighboring countries. New Yorker editor David Remnick, who has reported from the scene, describes their dispossession as total. Their numbers are growing; nearly one in five residents of politically fragile Lebanon now is a Syrian refugee. Money spent on an air strike may dissuade Assad from further atrocities. We know for certain that the same money spent on the Syrian refugees will save lives.

The other component of Plan B could be military, which would satisfy--at least partially--those like Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who've been pushing for some form of intervention. One step would be to speed the delivery of military arms promised to the moderate and secular anti-Assad insurgents, but not yet delivered. The other would be to ramp up the training program for those rebels by taking it out of the hands of the CIA and handing it over to the U.S. military. As one analyst put it Monday, that would turn the training mission from a "boutique" operation into an industrial strength one.

The point is that President Obama, like British Prime Minister David Cameron, may lose on this one. The real test of his leadership will come the next day. As I like to tell the students in a class I teach at UCLA's business school: Relax in defeat. You can almost always turn it into victory. Doing that is doubly important when what's at stake are human lives, rather than dollars and cents.