If you’re the kind of driver who can’t help but gawk at the wreckage when you pass an accident–and honestly, who isn’t?–you’ll enjoy today’s lengthy account in The Wall Street Journal of the runup to last week’s Putin-Assad triumph.
Right off the bat we learn, which is to say our suspicion is confirmed, that this was a case of a willful president with atrocious political instincts. When Obama consulted his cabinet and top staffers about the idea of seeking congressional approval for a strike in Syria, “senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer pegged the chances of Congress balking at 40%. . . . Mr. Obama took the gamble anyway and set aside the impending strikes to try to build domestic and international support for such action.”
In retrospect, it seems clear that while Pfeiffer was on the right track in warning that Congress might scuttle the plan, he underestimated the probability of that outcome. Given the political obstacles that stood in the way of the president’s call for authorization to use force–Republican control of the House, Democratic misgivings about military intervention, and, most important, crosspartisan public misgivings–it seems absurd to suggest Obama was ever likelier than not to win a vote.
In fact, one could make a case that the probability of gaining congressional assent was already so low as to be indistinguishable from zero on Aug. 31, when the president announced his request. The best counterargument is that in the ensuing days, Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry did such an inept job making their case that they worsened the odds. That would imply they had at least a slim chance of success to begin with.