The stated reason for bombing Syria is to make good on President Obama’s word and protect American credibility overseas.
Just as with the choice facing American policymakers in Syria -- where the options are al Qaeda-allied, Islamist rebels or Russian- and Iranian-backed government forces -- the possible political outcomes for Obama’s war gambit seem to be uniformly bad.
So, on to the choosing of lesser evils.
The president will hit the airwaves tonight in his first primetime address since his June 2011 speech announcing that he was making an earlier end to his troop surge in Afghanistan. Tonight, after months of flitting, Obama was due to make his case for military intervention in Syria and to ask Americans to overcome their objections and lean on Congress to back his plan.
It was going to be big news because it was going to be just the sort of thing Obama almost never does. Risking his political capital on an unpopular policy hasn’t really been Obama’s bag since his health law creaked over the finish line in 2010. Once ObamaCare was on the books, the idea was to just survive past re-election. And then, once re-elected, to just get through midterms.
Obama’s hyper-reactive, base-nuzzling brand of politics forbids much risk taking.
On national security, Obama has been particularly unwilling to take ownership. He abandoned his goldilocks surge strategy for Afghanistan on the nation’s doorstep, waved away concerns about his huge expansions of domestic spying and mostly sidestepped his own intervention in Libya, particularly once American-backed Islamists there turned on their benefactors last year.
Ending unpopular wars or announcing the death of the world’s most hated man? Obama’s your man. Defending his own national security policies? Better call John McCain.
Obama, having painted himself into a corner with his election-year tough talk of a “red line” in Syria, found himself with little choice but to publicly embrace an unpopular war. He even complained about it overseas, reminding reporters that he was elected to “end wars not start them."
With no coalition of the willing to back him up overseas, Obama reportedly thought briefly about doing something all of his predecessors back to Harry Truman had been forced to do: explain to the nation why he ordered swift, limited military action. But then his advisors suggested that the president could shift responsibility if he made House Republicans into the “dog who caught the car” and Obama backed off, shunting responsibility over to Congress.
Having either made Congress complicit in the strike or solely to blame for inaction, Obama would be distanced from his own policy. Tonight, he would have been out of his unhappy zone of defending an unpopular foreign policy and into his happy place of denouncing Republican intransigence and inaction.
We might have heard Obama chestnuts about how “this isn’t about me” and the broad suggestion that the only reason Republicans resisted his obviously good policy was a dispatriotic, personal and partisan animus toward him. Not great, since he still would have to be the hawk, but at least it was mitigated by doing some damage to his political foes.
Unfortunately for the president, though, the rest of the blue team wasn’t playing ball. Liberal complaints about Obama’s attack plan could not be sufficiently quieted. The resolution in support of the war was heading to ignominious, bipartisan defeat.
Just as Obama was ready to sally forth, the president was spared by Secretary of State John Kerry, who took a Chauncey Gardner turn in London. Kerry was mocking a question about Syria’s chemical weapons, but the Russians played it straight and offered a deal that would make Obama’s strikes impossible.
With lawmakers desperate for any excuse to bless Obama’s war plan, Vladimir Putin’s protective embrace of the Syrian regime is good enough to make sure that not only will Congress not act but that, in fact, the world can avert its eyes from Syria’s civil war.
So tonight, the president will instead try to take credit for the fact that he was thwarted at home and abroad – that he and his team masterfully blocked themselves long enough that Russia came in and scooped up the ball. He may still suggest that Congress should pre-authorize a strike, just in case, but his heart will be even less in it than it was before.
Obama will be back where he likes to be on foreign policy: observing and gainsaying the unpopular policies of others.
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News. His Power Play column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays at FoxNews.com. Catch Chris live online weekdays at 11:30 am ET. Read his “Fox News First” newsletter published each weekday morning. Sign up here.