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Opinion

September 7, 2013

Shribman: The Syria debate: The questions accumulate

In reflecting on another military adventure in the Middle East, Winston Churchill wrote of the ill-fated Battle of Gallipoli of 1915-1916, “The terrible ifs accumulate.”

Barack Obama’s appeal to Congress for support for his military initiative in Syria prompts a slightly different assertion: The stubborn questions accumulate.

These questions persist after a hard week of presidential lobbying — from the Cabinet Room of the White House, where Obama invited congressional leaders at the beginning of this remarkable campaign, to hotel rooms in Sweden and Moscow, stops on the president’s G-20 trip that became war rooms in the effort to win backing in Congress to attack Syria.

All the meetings and phone calls may provide a tentative answer to the president’s quest, but had the deeply unsettling effect of raising these questions:

Having punted the Syria issue up Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol, could the president still move against Syria without congressional approval?

This question presents a political squeeze play. On the one hand, by asking for congressional approval before moving against Syria, the president is doing more than suggesting that support of a majority of lawmakers on Capitol Hill is preferable to unilateral presidential action. He is saying it is essential, at least politically.

At the same time, the administration is arguing that the executive branch retains constitutional authority to mount such an attack. See the answer Secretary of State John F. Kerry gave to a question posed Tuesday by Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a tea party favorite and a likely 2016 presidential candidate. All of which raises the next question:

Why did the president take this gamble anyway?

At first blush, this may seem a question for historians, but it is not. Having taken this gamble in this instance — unnecessary if you extend the administration’s logic as expressed by Kerry — Obama thus may be obliged to do so in the next instance.

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