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August 29, 2013 9:52 AM War, Parliaments, and Coalition Politics

By Ed Kilgore

As we enter a period when military action against Syria could happen any time, the Obama administration is struggling to line up allies at home and abroad. Last night Slate’s Dave Weigel did a post from London on David Cameron’s efforts to get quick Parliamentary backing for British participation in a military strike—and what’s kept it from happening so far.

The basic story is that both Cameron’s coalition partner, the traditionally anti-war Lib Dem Party, balked at backing a Syria strike, and so too did the opposition Labour Party, where regrets over Tony Blair’s backing of the Iraq War are still strong. In Britain, it is rather difficult to go to war without a clear Parliamentary majority. Not so much here in the U.S.:

Instead of a quick turnaround — advisors, evidence provided [by] the United States, parliamentary approval — the U.K.’s role in any strike on Syria will depend on a few more boxes being checked. It’s the legacy of the Iraq debacle, and it’s quite a bit more hesitation than we’ll get in Washington. There, Republicans are “seeking answers” before any Syrian intervention, but not taking any concrete steps to prevent the president from the usual two-step: Intervening, then returning to Congress after the fact with some War Powers-compliant explanation of why he intervened.

Part of the dynamics here in the U.S., of course, is that too many Republicans are looking for another talking point against Obama instead of trying to actually influence his behavior. The day he launches an attack on Syria, those GOPers outside the McCain-Graham interventionist caucus will freak out about his tyrannical fecklessness and his feckless tyranny—but what will distinguish it from any other day? Nothing much.

Meanwhile, among Democrats there is little enthusiasm for Obama’s course of action on Syria, but little vocal opposition, either. Only 18 House Democrats signed on with 97 House Republicans to a letter requesting prior consultation with Congress on any military strike.

So from a purely political point of view, Obama’s short-term risks in lashing out at Syria are relatively low, taking into account the many indications that steady majorities of the U.S. public do not care about Syria and will not be happy with any military action that lasts more than a day or two. But Obama will be more isolated than in similar situations in the past, which reduces the margin of error to a sliver.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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