The unthinkable may be about to happen. As Washington prepares for a series of dramatic debates and votes in the House and Senate for attacking Syria, the NY Times is reporting that opponents are “closing in” on the 218 votes needed to torpedo Obama’s plans. The paper maintains a vote count that finds currently 153 members oppose a strike. Only 40 support one. It does leave 209 undecided. But opponents only need 65 more votes and supporters need 278. At a certain point, the math becomes tough to overcome.
The Washington Post finds that 226 members are either committed to voting No or leaning that way. If such numbers hold up the president’s goose is cooked. If he loses, it will have extraordinary repercussions for him and for several Middle Eastern players.
Clearly, the one with most to lose is Obama himself. He staked all his prestige, reputation and political capital on getting this vote. As I wrote yesterday, he went “all-in.” There was no fudging this one. He had to win. Losing means he’d become much more of a lame duck president than he was before. It will mean the waning of his presidential power. Opponents will be bolder in crossing him. Allies will be less inclined to stand with him and more willing to balk at his proposals.
Personally, I think this is very sad and bordering on a tragedy. Obama came into office envisioning the progressive equivalent of Regan’s “shining city on a hill.” He promised change and reform. He promised a radical shift from his predecessor. He was for freedom, new initiatives, expanding rights. What has he delivered? True, he saved the economy and passed a landmark health care reform measure. But aside from this, he has almost nothing to show.
The most tragic loss from my point of view was Obama’s abandonment of a Mideast peace agreement. He was never willing to go all-in for peace. It meant using too much capital. If the president had been willing to use every resource at his disposal as he is now, I believe he could’ve made great headway. But he wasn’t willing. If he loses the vote, then Kerry’s peace initiative is dead (more on that later) and with it any further serious effort to bring Palestinians and Israelis together.
But there are other players who will draw lessons from an Obama defeat: Assad will falsely believe he’s bested the best, and therefore that nothing stands in his way. He will be emboldened and wreak even greater havoc on his fellow Syrians.
But the wild card here is Iran. Clearly, Israel’s motivation for attacking Syria has much less to do with Syria itself than Iran, for reasons I’ve explained before. If Iran’s leadership was as pig-headed and myopic as Assad, it too would triumphantly crow about his victory. That might’ve been the way Ahmadinejad might’ve played it. But from everything I’m seeing from Pres. Rouhani, this is a man who may understand that a chastened Obama may be more, rather than less willing to mold a compromise on issues dividing his country from the west.
One of the key problems in the dynamic between these two groups has been the west’s perceived power and Iran’s perceived (as by the west) weakness. Misguided analysts like Meir Javedanfar and others believed that the ayatollahs were so weak that all the west needed to do was gradually ratchet up the pressure and they would eventually fold. This approach has failed, as many of us who opposed sanctions and a draconian approach to Iran knew it would.
But what if an Obama whose ambitions of leading a world coalition against Iran have been cut down to size met an Iranian leader who in his own way recognizes the limitations of Iranian power. If the two could sit down and pragmatically approach these issues, rather than hector each other with bull horns in the world media, then you could achieve something unprecedented.
Of course, I realize that there is so much water that has flowed under this bridge that it may be impossible to win a breakthrough. But my impression is that with Rouhani, we have the best chance we have had in a decade (since Pres. Bush rejected then-Pres. Khatami’s peace overture) to do the right thing.
Last but not least is Israel. A Congressional defeat will further embitter Bibi Netanyahu. You will hear the usual Likudist carping about the U.S. being an unreliable ally. There will be further invocations of the Holocaust (remember Kerry’s infamous “Munich Moment”) and reminders that no one stood up for the Jews then. Which means that if Israel finds Iran an existential threat, it MUST attack and be ready to do it alone. If Obama loses, this will make the current extremist Israeli government even more unpredictable. Stability in the region will be even more endangered than it is now.
Netanyahu will turn his back on virtually any and every Obama overture. Peace talks with the Palestinians? Don’t kid with me. They’re dead.
All this should motivate both Obama and Rouhani to redouble their efforts to achieve a compromise agreement. Doing so will largely defang Bibi. It will leave him without the most powerful unifying threat he has to motivate the Israeli people to stick with him. There is a problem for autocratic leaders who turns enemies into bogeymen: once they’re shown not to be bogeymen, there’s nothing holding the people together. They, in effect, see the emperor has no clothes. That could very well be Bibi’s fate (God willing!!).