President Obama is trying to pull off a difficult political feat. He is asking Congress to defy public opinion. When Congress is heedless of public opinion, there is always a political price to be paid.
Case in point: the Senate vote to ratify the Panama Canal treaties in 1978. Many years later, President Jimmy Carter called it "the most courageous decision in the history of the U.S. Congress." And what happened? The public rose up. The issue energized conservatives. Ronald Reagan made the canal his signature cause. His rallying cry: "We built it. We paid for it. It's ours. And we're going to keep it."
The Senate ratified the treaties by a one-vote margin in 1978. And then? Here's how former President Carter tells the story: "There were twenty senators who voted for the treaties up for re-election in 1978. Only seven of them came back to the Senate the next year." Another twelve treaty supporters were defeated in 1980, including Democrats Frank Church of Idaho, Birch Bayh of Indiana and George McGovern of South Dakota. Not to mention President Carter himself.
On Syria, public opinion could not be clearer. Americans strongly -- and loudly -- oppose a military strike. Unfortunately for President Obama, the issue came up when Members of Congress were on their summer recess, most of them in their home districts. Constituents had access to their Representatives. And the Representatives got an earful. Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) told The New York Times, "I literally cannot walk across the parking lot without being stopped to talk about this issue."
"To say it's 99 percent against would be overstating the support," Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) told the Times. The Washington Post reported this message on the Facebook page of Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-Va.): "The American people DO NOT WANT to get involved in Syria. Are you listening? We will not forget who votes for this garbage."
Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) warned his colleagues in a tweet, "If you're voting 'yes' on military action in Syria, might as well start cleaning out your office. Unprecedented level of public opposition."
Syria is a rare issue where the split is not left versus right or Democrat versus Republican. It's populist versus establishment. The nation's establishment endorses military action -- President Obama, Hillary Clinton, the secretaries of state and defense, top congressional leaders of both parties, former and current CIA directors. But they are having a tough time making the argument that a military strike is necessary to protect U.S. national interests. Because it's not, at least in any obvious way.
The establishment has to argue that the U.S. has international interests as well as national interests. Since World War II, the United States has been the guarantor of world order and the enforcer of global rules -- what President Clinton called "the world's indispensable nation." Whenever a threat to world peace or stability has emerged -- in Kuwait or Kosovo or Afghanistan or Iraq or Libya -- if the U.S. had not acted, nothing would have been done.
That argument has hit a roadblock. The American people are not interested in playing that role any more. In truth, Americans have never been enthusiastic about assuming the burden of global leadership. We didn't get into World War I until the final year of war. We entered World War II only after we were bombed by the Japanese -- more than two years after the war started. President Obama drew attention to that fact when he said last week, "I'm not drawing an analogy to World War II, other than to say, you know, when London was getting bombed, it was profoundly unpopular, both in Congress and around the country, to help the British."
The president now has the daunting task of trying to persuade members of Congress to defy their constituents. What arguments can the White House make?
It can try to persuade the public that failing to act would be as dangerous for the United States as a military strike. The U.S. would lose credibility in dealing with hostile regimes like Iran and North Korea. The pro-Israel lobby is backing President Obama up on that point.
It can argue to Republicans that if the U.S. backs down, other countries would learn that they can defy the U.S. with impunity. That would betray the legacy of Ronald Reagan.
It can argue to Democrats that if President Obama is defeated, Congress will conclude that it can defy this President with impunity. That would endanger the entire Democratic agenda.
Benjamin Rhodes, President Obama's deputy national security adviser, captured the sentiment of the nation's establishment perfectly when he made this point to The New York Times: "One thing for Congress to consider is the message that this debate sends about U.S. leadership around the world -- that the U.S. for decades has played the role of undergirding the global security architecture and enforcing international norms. And we do not want to send a message that the United States is getting out of that business in any way."
The problem is, that's exactly the message the American people want to send.