WASHINGTON -- For a notoriously cautious politician, Barack Obama has taken a major gamble on his presidency in deciding to put his promised attack on Syria on hold, and then asking Congress for authority to go ahead.
In the simplest political terms, seeking to make Congress a partner in perhaps his most significant foreign-policy decision opens him to stinging partisan assaults from an opposition party that has sought to bring him down from the start. One can easily imagine critical jibes that he is being guided not by the fierce urgency of now, but of next week.
The president starts his public and private lobbying for congressional authority wounded by his glaring tactical mistakes, beginning with clearly drawing that red line against Syrian use of such weapons. His subsequent dilly-dallying on what to do about it and then, after deciding, to pull back have made matters infinitely worse for him. His behavior only reinforces impressions of uncertainty that invite comparisons with a previous Democratic president, Jimmy Carter.
Obama's neglect to seek congressional authority prior to his declaration of intent makes second-guessing an easy parlor game. It is compounded now by his failure to call Congress back to Washington immediately, rather than waiting until the vacationing members return from their normal Labor Day recess.
In opening the door to lengthy debate on Capitol Hill on the specifics of the use-of-force resolution, Obama has given both his policy and partisan critics a wide range of opportunities for exploitation. With political squabbles already looming for the fall over budget and debt-ceiling issues, he enters the fray distinctly on the defensive.
Nor does he look good pressing on with scheduled visits to Sweden and to the latest G20 meeting in St. Petersburg, rather than staying home and personally lobbying Congress, as his 11th-hour turnabout has now required. That trip will be clouded not only by the failure of the U.N. to act in the crisis, but also by the British Parliament's rebuff of Prime Minister David Cameron's effort to stand by Obama's side.
The whole mismanaged turn of events also underscores the crying need for revamping the widely ignored War Powers Resolution. It was intended after the Vietnam War to require greater congressional consultation and periodic reports on interventions launched without the congressional declaration specified in the Constitution.
An early ray of hope has broken through with the swift public support for congressional authority from Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, two of the most respected opposition voices on military affairs in Congress. Both men, however, have conditioned their desires to seeing the presidential resolution revised to provide more assistance to favored insurgents in Syria.
Obama is depending on a cold realization on Capitol Hill that in the end the country, Congress and the Republican Party particularly cannot risk further international ridicule by failing to support him in punishing Syrian use of chemical weapons. The White House has warned that such failure would severely undercut Obama's attempts to deter Iran from its own drive for nuclear weapons.
On top of all this is the peril of unintended consequences of an American intervention, demonstrated vividly by the Iraq experience repeatedly deplored by Obama himself. In all, he is gambling mightily on pulling a rabbit out of his hat in this dilemma made worse by his uncertain trumpet on Syria.
Much more is at stake now than his much-speculated presidential legacy. America's leadership role has now been placed on the scales of a watching nation and world. It's often said no president achieves greatness unless he is challenged by a major crisis and overcomes it. In part by his own making, Barack Obama now faces his moment of truth in this ugly Syrian situation.
(Jules Witcover's latest book is Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at email@example.com.)