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No, Washington, Syria is Actually Not All About You

In today’s paper, The Washington Post writes that President Obama has “staked the credibility of the United States—and his presidency—on his call for a military operation.” In the Wall Street Journal, Bill Galston warned more darkly of the consequences of Congress rejecting a strike on Syria: “A loss would shatter his presidency, and a lot more.” NBC’s First Read warns of the “full-fledged political crisis the president will face” if he loses a vote on Syria: “His congressional opposition will be more emboldened, if that was possible. (Any advantage the Democrats hold in the upcoming fiscal fights ahead could quickly disappear.) A year before the 2014 midterms, Democrats will start hitting the panic button with a wounded Democratic president in office.”

We’ll see next week whether the White House is able to improve on what are looking like pretty dire prospects for its request for approval of limited airstrikes against Bashar Assad’s regime. For now, it’s clear that its decision to take this matter to Congress has launched the Beltway media and official Washington into its favorite mode: hyperventilating solipsism. Hundreds of children may be dying in clouds of nerve gas while extremist rebels execute captured soldiers at point-blank range, but really, you see, this is all about us: our whip counts, elections 14 months away and our “war weariness.”

Yes, it’s surely a good thing for us to be having the semblance of a public debate before we undertake another military action in the most combustible corner of the world. But there is something surreal and hypocritical about all the chin-tugging pontificating over the merits of sending some Tomahawk missiles and bombers screaming across the skies over Syria when we have, with barely a whisper of dissent, been zapping hundreds of targets in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere with our Predators and Reapers for years now. Heck, there are now advertisements for those very drones in the Washington Metro— “UNMANNED POWER: When you can go where others can't, you gain a powerful advantage,” reads one from Northrop Grumman. This, apparently, is accepted as normal, but put an actual pilot in that armed flying machine and we’re “going to war.”

As for the notion that the Syria vote could “shatter” Obama’s presidency: seriously? No question, Obama has mishandled Syria in countless ways, and if Congress were to reject airstrikes, it would have serious consequences for the administration’s foreign policy for the remainder for his second term, and for the long-fraught relationship between the executive and legislative branch when it comes to undertaking military action. But it’s a wee bit overstated to say that everything is riding on this vote, when in fact most Americans would apparently prefer us not taking action in Syria, when Obama himself has made clear how ambivalent he himself is about doing so, and when congressional Republicans are making plain how much their resistance to the proposal is just another manifestation of reflexive opposition to anything emanating from Barack Obama, regardless of how inconsistent with their past stances on the matter. Far from a rejection “shattering” his presidency, it seems just as possible that voters would view the whole episode as a sort of predictable diversion from issues they really care about: Obama making a dutiful, belated attempt to punish an autocrat for horrific attacks on his own people, only to see it run aground in Congress as so much else has.

But viewing what’s happening now in such a framework would not do anyone in Washington any good. The bigger the story, the bigger we all are. So we inflate away.

Alec MacGillis is a New Republic senior editor. Follow him @AlecMacGillis.