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Dunsmore: Credibility Matters

Presidents rarely submit major policy initiatives to Congressional vote – especially a vote that may not be entirely necessary - unless the outcome is pre-cooked.

But that is not the case with President Barack Obama’s surprise decision to seek Congressional approval for a military strike against Syria because of its use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians. Initially what Congress would do was very much in doubt.

So it was big news when after a White House briefing for Congressional leaders on Tuesday, House Speaker John Boehner and House Majority leader Eric Cantor both supported the president’s initiative. Also on Tuesday, the pro-Israeli lobby AIPAC added its powerful voice to supporters. On the Senate side, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee came up with a bipartisan resolution in favor of limited intervention.

The key elements in that resolution would give the president 60 days to complete military actions to significantly de-grade Syrian capabilities to use chemical weapons, with a possible 30 day extension. And there would be a total ban against the use of American ground troops.

But there are several wild cards yet to play out that could stymie that or any other supportive resolution. One question is, how many Republican votes can Boehner and Cantor actually deliver in the House? Their caucus includes nearly one hundred members affiliated to the Tea Party. They tend to be against any kind of government intervention across the board- and they especially oppose anything proposed by President Obama.

That puts great pressure on House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi to produce enough Democratic votes to compensate for Tea Party opposition. Ms. Pelosi says she supports the president. But many liberal Democrats - who see specters of the false intelligence that led to the Iraq war - are strongly against any form of American military intervention in Syria. In addition, new polls show a substantial majority of Americans also oppose it.

So it is not inconceivable that a curious coalition of liberal Democrats and Tea Party Republicans could defeat the president in either the House or Senate - or less likely, in both. Quite frankly, on this, I agree with Republican Senator John McCain, that for the president to lose this congressional vote would be “catastrophic.”

These days that is not entirely a popular view. When I supported the president in my newspaper column last week, one of my own daughters, a dean at American University e-mailed me: “Wow. I can’t believe you are supporting an attack!”

I have consistently opposed American intervention in Syria’s civil war. Yet I have been around long enough to believe that America’s credibility matters. If it threatens consequences for the use of chemical weapons, there must be consequences when such weapons are used. In the Middle East, friends like Israel and foes such as Iran seem to believe Obama is too soft and Americans too war-weary to take any military action for any reason. Given the looming future crisis if Iran goes nuclear, such perceptions are very dangerous.

Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, now living in Charlotte.
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