At the United Nations Monday, President Barack Obama touted what are probably the two biggest items left on his to-do list before leaving office — a global warming agreement later this year in Paris and a settlement to the Syria conflict. Congress barely got a mention.
The Paris accord, like the Iran deal before it, will be strictly an executive agreement, given that Obama wouldn't have the votes to pass anything in either chamber. Prospects seem to have improved for getting a deal after last week's agreement with China, which has announced plans to implement a cap-and-trade scheme and push for a global accord in France. Congress, if it gets a chance to weigh in at all, will be via an effort to disapprove Obama's carbon regulations.
Obama's hopes for resolving the Syria conflict, meanwhile, rests on Russia and Iran, given that the White House has not been able to articulate a strategy that would both destroy the Islamic State terror group, also known as ISIS, and force Syria President Bashar Assad from power. Congress, of course, hasn’t even been able to hash out a use-of-force resolution targeting ISIS, let alone agree on a broader Syria policy, and Obama's left to jawbone Russia and Iran to do the right thing.
Both countries have more influence on the ground in Syria than the United States — and arguably more at stake for Russia given its naval base in Syria that is its only one in the Mediterranean.
Obama has the bully pulpit and the Air Force to deploy, but effectively no ground troops in the fight after the failure of the mission to train and equip moderates.
Ahead of his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Obama talked of working with both Russia and Iran to resolve the conflict, but spent much of his speech appearing to tweak the Russian president on democracy, Ukraine and assorted other issues.
He blamed the Syria conflict and chaos squarely on Assad's attacks on peaceful citizens years ago.
"The United States is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict. We must recognize that there cannot be, after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a return to the prewar status quo," he said.
But Putin blames the conflict on a failure to support the existing government.
The White House is left hoping Putin will realize at some point that it's best for Russia if Assad eventually finds greener pastures somewhere else and a new leader more amenable to the broader Syrian population shows up. In the meantime, the White House wouldn't mind Russian help taking on ISIS.
Congress did get one mention from Obama, with the president believing that Congress will inevitably roll back the embargo on Cuba.
"For 50 years, the United States pursued a Cuban policy that failed to improve the lives of the Cuban people. We changed that. We continue to have differences with the Cuban government, we will continue to stand up for human rights, but we address these issues through diplomatic relations and increased commerce. And people-to-people ties.
"As these contacts yield progress, I am confident that our Congress will inevitably lift an embargo that should not be in place anymore."
That doesn't appear in the cards anytime soon, however.
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