Earlier today Bloomberg View columnists Margaret Carlson and Ramesh Ponnuru met online to chat about Syria and the next move for President Barack Obama and the U.S. Congress. Below is a lightly edited transcript.
Margaret: I always worry someone is going to catch me playing Words With Friends, the game made famous by Alec Baldwin's refusal to turn off his iPhone for takeoff, but I'm not a U.S. senator. What was John McCain thinking? He's the leader of the hawk caucus, others will follow him, but won't they be a bit put off by his playing poker instead of paying attention at arguably one of the more important Senate Foreign Relations hearings this year? The Washington Post caught him, not the National Security Agency, by the way. In any event, the Aces High Senator announced this morning he can't support the president's resolution (after making nice to the president in the White House driveway yesterday) because it doesn't go far enough. Do you see him carrying more than his posse with him (Senators Lindsey Graham, Kelly Ayotte, Jeff Flake and a few others)? He could give cover to all who would like to diss the president on grounds he's too wimpy (rather than your magisterial arguments on the president's constitutional powers).
Ramesh: A war resolution that can't win the support of McCain, Liz Cheney and John Bolton is in trouble. Nancy Pelosi doesn't seem to have convinced her 5-year-old grandson, who by the way seems to have a more realistic understanding of what war is than she does. Obama is asking congressmen to support a resolution that could mean any number of things, that the public doesn't support and that he says he doesn't need to go ahead. McCain is not the big obstacle to congressional passage, Obama's weak case is.
Margaret: Agreed. It's a mess but then so is Syria. And thank goodness no one needs Wyoming Senate candidate Liz Cheney's (R-McLean, Virginia) support given that she can't get her own sister's. For those of us still reeling from the last war in which there were no weapons of mass destruction while this military action goes begging when there are definitely WMDs, a defeat of any Cheney will be sweet. If this were the perfect war, Obama would get fierce opposition just on the grounds it has his fingerprints on it. Any proposal of his has to look like an orphan, or Republicans will automatically reject it.
Ramesh: There is Republican partisanship at work here, definitely -- just as there are Democrats who will swallow their reservations to support a president of their party. On the merits though, the idea of strikes still seems like it has not been thought through. Obama seems this morning to have mostly abandoned the argument about national interest and instead rested on the humanitarian argument. But how confident can we be that we'll make conditions in Syria better? Or that we'll reinforce the norm against chemical weapons use? If we don't topple Bashar al-Assad, then everyone will see the U.S. as ineffectual; if we do, we can't limit our involvement and have no idea how things will turn out.
Margaret: Start a conversation on Syria and most people end up with three or more hands. Take Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, who was for intervention until the president was and then he said, oddly, there's no money for it. Some were wailing during the August recess that Obama would be wrong to bomb Syria without congressional approval, now they criticize him as weak for seeking it. The resolution is too open (and Democrats like Senator Patrick Leahy and Representative Charles Rangel have joined that criticism) and will just be a pinprick that won't do anything. They talk about arming the rebels as if Obama wasn't doing that. Even after the debacles in governing following the fall of tyrants, Obama-haters make it sound easy to go in, take out Assad and live happily ever after under a Jeffersonian democracy. With the Free Syrian Army, you get what you pay for. Then there is the chorus, led by Marco Rubio, which says because you didn't do anything earlier when I told you to, you are not permitted to do anything now.
Ramesh: But Obama hasn't followed through on his promises to arm the rebels, has he? And it's possible to have a moment for effective action that passes. A lot of close observers say the opposition has gotten more Islamist than it was two years ago and that could reasonably change people's views. We have no clear idea of what we'd be doing in Syria, and no public support to do it. Obama-haters or not, congressmen should say no.
Margaret: Call me crazy, and you will, but I believed the president when he said the rebels were receiving arms. I assume it's not by Amazon Prime so a copy of the Washington Post might not be included.
Ramesh: Obama now has to thread two needles. The resolution has to be open enough that there's a point to it, and narrow enough not to scare most congressmen; and the attack has to be strong enough to "send a message" without destroying the regime. He needs a lot of luck, and so do we.