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Obama swims upstream on Syrian vote

– Last time around, there were a lot of known unknowns. President George W. Bush preferred to act before knowing the knowns rather than take the risk that actual information might thwart his dream of invading Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein.

This time, we have as much certainty as you can have that the weapons exist, were used by Syrian President Bashar Assad and killed 1,500 of his citizens.

And yet, in 2003, with almost nothing to go on, Congress voted in favor of invading Iraq. In 2013, with everything to go on, it’s going to be an uphill slog to get lawmakers to approve a limited punitive strike against Syria.

For President Barack Obama, the next two weeks will be harder than making it from Havana to the Florida Keys, swimming against the tide. He’s up against a House that doesn’t take advice or follow its leader.

The one Republican you didn’t hear crying for a congressional vote on Syria was House Speaker John Boehner. He can’t get his caucus together to vote on things that are in its interest to pass; imagine trying to herd his cats to a vote on Syria. Good luck to the speaker in bringing together his hawks, who believe the president is a wimp and that we should have bombed Syria yesterday, with his isolationists, who can’t name a war they would fight.

Part of the problem is Obama. To hurt him, his opponents are willing to hurt themselves more.

The likes of Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul have replaced measured, politics-stops-at-the-water’s-edge Republicans such as former senators Richard Lugar and Olympia Snowe. There’s a new breed of senator who knows everything upon arrival and is too much in a hurry to get to the Oval Office to stop and think. Obama will never get their support.

Will there be profiles in courage – members (such as Boehner) up for re-election in 2014 who go against their constituents? It’s more likely that even in the face of life and death, the default position of opposing the president no matter what will prevail.

Even those Republicans in favor of action can’t agree on the kind of action to take. On Sept. 1, Sen. John McCain said it would be “catastrophic” not to strike Syria but that he could only support Obama if the president committed to winning on the battlefield, forcing Assad from power and arming the Syrian rebels.

Obama wishes for those outcomes but isn’t prepared to expose U.S. troops while trying to achieve them in the terrible crossfire of a civil (and religious) war. It’s hard to see how Obama gets straight with McCain and his close ally Sen. Lindsey Graham, who in any event constitute a small bloc.

By going to Congress, Obama empowers 535 would-be commanders-in-chief who see Gen. George Patton in the mirror each morning. But there’s also the slight chance that congressional involvement will improve the response to Syria, pushing it beyond a small strike to degrading Assad’s arsenal and arming non-jihadist rebels with sophisticated weapons without exposing U.S. troops to harm or getting mired in a Mideast conflict. We’ve done that already.

Punishing Assad may not accomplish much, but not punishing him sets a terrible precedent: that we will let pass the use of chemical weapons. Even though the something to be done isn’t perfect, something is sometimes all you can get.

Margaret Carlson, former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist.