Within moments after President Obama bluntly indicated that he was ready and willing to strike Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces for its alleged mass chemical attack on civilians, dozens of the most liberal House Democrats signed a letter warning him to tread very carefully on any Syrian action. Their message was cautious, gentile, and diplomatic. The implication behind it was that a strike against Syria carried grave political risks. One risk was obvious. And that is that with or without Congress’s authorization, waging war against a nation that has not directly attacked or poses any direct threat to the United States again tags the United States as the aggressor and bully.
Obama was mindful of this risk when he early on ignored GOP war hawks and did not rush headlong into an attack on the country without evidence that Assad’s war against rebel factions threatened U.S. and allied interests in the area. He ignored the GOP hawks again when he tossed the ball to Congress to make the decision whether to strike and what the parameters of the strike objectives should be.
The unstated risk was hopelessly alienating his most impassioned supporters while giving his inveterate GOP detractors another card to play against him. The even more long range political peril is to further taint Democrats in the eyes of liberals and progressives as a party that is just as willing to wage war as the GOP. All three are important considerations for Obama. They take on even more significance given that polls show Americans overwhelmingly oppose any involvement in Syria, masses of demonstrators have already taken to the streets in protest of a strike, and some Tea Party affiliated GOP congressional reps have screamed loudly against the war drums. And GOP Senate war hawks want nothing less than an all-out attack to remove the Assad regime.
The threat of an active and passive drift of progressives away from a full-throated support of his policies has been building for some time with deep questions on everything from the compromises he’s made on health care reform to the perceived catering to Wall Street interests. The hard reality, though, is that Obama needs liberal Democrats and progressives in Congress and in the field to sell his initiatives on immigration reform, jobs and the economy, the looming showdown with the GOP over the budget, and his staff and judicial appointments. Red dog Democrats, bankers, corporate CEOs and lobbyists can't and won't put the passion, energy and, most importantly, the bodies out there to do the grunt political work to back his agenda in his final term as president and to spearhead the tough battle many Democrats face to keep their seats in the House and Senate in 2014.
There were 120 million voters in 2012. The Congressional Black Caucus, the Hispanic Congressional Caucus, and the Progressive Democratic Caucus, the third parties, left leaning labor unions, and left independents together represent an estimated 10 to 15 percent of the overall vote. That's 12 to 15 million voters. However, it's not just the numbers. It's also where the numbers are. The bulk of the voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina and Florida traditionally are Republican, independents, and moderate and conservative Democrats. With the exception of Pennsylvania, Bush won these states in 2000 and 2004, and bagged the White House. Obama did not change the voter demographic in these states. He did, however, drastically rev up the numbers of black, Latino, and youth voters, generally more socially and politically progressive, and self-designated progressive voters that turned out. This made the crucial difference and cinched his wins, as well as that of many House and Senate Democrats.
Liberal Democrats and progressives within and outside of Congress have repeatedly reminded Obama to remember the promises he made on Iraq and Afghanistan. In the case of Iraq, he blasted it as a failed and flawed war that should never have been fought. He promised that as president he would move as quickly as possible to end it. He kept that promise. As for Afghanistan, he escalated the war, but there was always the explicit understanding that the established timetable for phased withdrawal would be kept and there would be an actual end to direct U.S. military involvement in the country. He’s kept that promise.
Though Obama has taken much heat from the left for his willingness to play the tough guy on defense and national security issues, the truth is that he has moved with far more apparent caution on these issues than critics claim. The Syrian strike threat is again the best example. Obama has made it clear there will not be direct U.S. military involvement. This is an easy call since few Americans will back that anyway. He’s hedged on when the threatened missile strikes against Syria will occur, saying that there’s no set timetable for the launch if Congress approves action.
This is Obama’s nod to his backers who oppose any action against the country, or demand the most limited action possible to insure no repeat of anther Iraq and Afghanistan quagmire. Obama’s challenge is to assure them a Syria strike won’t lead to that.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. Follow him on Twitter.