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First Thoughts: Military action is coming

U.S. military action in Syria appears to be coming… But will it work?... Why 2013 isn’t 2009… Cuccinelli’s defensive TV ad… A key difference between Ted Cruz and Rand Paul: Paul is backing his home-state GOP senator up for re-election in ’14, while Cruz isn’t… And Nikki Haley officially announces re-election bid.

*** Military action is coming: All the action and body language over the weekend suggests that the United States is preparing for some kind of military response to the suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria. The question is: Just what kind of response will it be? On Saturday, President Obama met with his national security team, and he called British Prime Minister David Cameron. “The two leaders expressed their grave concern about the reported use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime… The United States and UK stand united in our opposition to the use of chemical weapons,” the White House said per a readout of the call. And on Sunday, the president spoke with French President Hollande. (These are the types of calls a president makes to both build support and inform of upcoming plans. Also of note, Secretary of State John Kerry spent the weekend briefing and speaking with a slew of Arab allies, particular the folks in the Gulf States, who could drive an Arab League decision that gives the U.S. the international legal justification it is currently looking for.) Indeed, as NBC’s Andrea Mitchell reported on “TODAY,” the United States and its allies are considering military options -- most likely, cruise missiles from Navy destroyers and submarines in the Mediterranean or U.S. fighter jets targeting Syrian airfields from where chemical attacks could be launched. “I do think action is going to occur,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) said on “TODAY.” The question no longer seems to be “if”; rather, it’s “when,” “how,” and “how long.”

U.N. vehicles transport a team of U.N. chemical weapons experts to the scene of a poison gas attack outside the Syrian capital last week, in Damascus August 26, 2013. Khaled Al-Hariri / Reuters

*** Will it work? And here’s another question: Will some kind of U.S. response actually work? Eliot Cohen -- who worked in the George W. Bush administration -- argues that it won’t in a Washington Post op-ed. “A minority regime fighting for its life, as Bashar al-Assad’s is, can weather a couple of dozen big bangs.” Yet writing in the Sunday New York Times, Edward Luttwak makes a different point: The U.S. should work to achieve a stalemate in the Syrian civil war. “[I]t would be disastrous if President Bashar al-Assad’s regime were to emerge victorious after fully suppressing the rebellion and restoring its control over the entire country… But a rebel victory would also be extremely dangerous for the United States and for many of its allies in Europe and the Middle East. That’s because extremist groups, some identified with Al Qaeda, have become the most effective fighting force in Syria.” One other thing worth mentioning: The latest Edward Snowden leak -- that the NSA secretly monitored the UN’s New York headquarters by hacking into the organization’s video conferencing system -- might complicate things with America’s allies as it tries to get the world community behind a response to Syria. And we’re less than a month from what could be the most contentious gathering of the U.N. General Assembly in a long time.

*** 2013 isn’t 2009: With the month of August winding down and with Congress set to return to Washington in two weeks, we can say one thing definitely: This isn’t 2009. For one thing, the town halls haven’t contained the anger or the drama from those of four years ago. (One reason why: Many members of Congress learned back in 2009 to simply not hold town hall meetings. Another reason: The unemployment rate is going down instead of up.) In 2009, the out-of-power Republican Party was unified in its opposition to the health-care and cap-and-trade legislation. Now? The GOP is divided on whether it should defund the health-care law or even impeach the president, regardless if he has committed high crimes or misdemeanors. And back in 2009, Republican Bob McDonnell was beginning to look like the runaway front-runner in Virginia’s gubernatorial contest. This year, the Ken Cuccinelli-vs.-Terry McAuliffe race is looking like a coin flip with Bob McDonnell now a political liability, and last week’s Quinnipiac poll showed the Democrat McAuliffe leading by six points among likely voters. This isn’t to say that health care’s implementation is going to be a breeze, or that Democrats are sitting pretty for the midterms (in fact, the opposite is true), or that Cuccinelli is going to lose. But if you were expecting 2009 -- or 2010 -- all over again in 2013 and 2014, you’re probably going to be mistaken.

*** Cuccinelli’s defensive TV ad: Speaking of Virginia’s gubernatorial race, if you wanted confirmation that the Quinnipiac poll isn’t too far off the mark -- and that the ethics cloud hovering over incumbent Bob McDonnell is hurting the GOP and Cuccinelli specifically -- look no further than the very defensive TV ad Cuccinelli released on Friday. “The truth? there's only one candidate under investigation, Terry McAuliffe,” the ad goes. “A Democrat commonwealth attorney cleared Cuccinelli of any wrongdoing. Cuccinelli personally launched the investigation into Bob McDonnell, and called for immediate reform to strengthen ethics laws. Those are the facts.” Note the veiled shot at McDonnell. As we’ve observed for most of the summer, Cuccinnelli has run a very disciplined campaign and kept McAuliffe on the defensive. But it’s the issue that he can’t control that has become a serious liability: McDonnell. It was just four months ago that both Cuccinelli and McAuliffe were fighting over who would be MORE like McDonnell as a governor.

*** One key difference between Ted Cruz and Rand Paul: While Ted Cruz and Rand Paul are on the same page when it comes to most issues, there is one BIG different between the two GOP senators: Paul is supporting his fellow senator up for re-election next year (Mitch McConnell), while Cruz isn’t supporting his (John Cornyn). “The reason is simple,” Cruz said about his decision not to endorse Cornyn or any other incumbent, per the Washington Post. “I think every elected official, including me, owes it to the people, owes it the grass roots, to go and make the case to the grass roots why he or she is representing their interests.” The difference appears to be in the different goals both men may have right now. Rand Paul seems to be intent on trying to take over the GOP and win the internal argument; Ted Cruz seems to be about creating the brand of Ted Cruz and establishing ANTI-party credentials.

*** Obama’s day: After Saturday’s events on the National Mall and before his own speech on Wednesday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, President Obama meets with faith leaders at the White House at 11:30 am ET to discuss the 1963 March on Washington. He also awards the Medal of Honor to Staff Sergeant Ty Carter at 2:10 pm and meets with the 2013 Urban Debate National Tournament champions at 4:15 pm.

*** Haley announces 2014 re-election bid: Lastly, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) officially announces her re-election today in Greenville, SC at 4:00 pm ET. The Greenville News: “Haley … will be joined by Rick Perry of Texas, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Scott Walker of Wisconsin – all considered possible presidential candidates in 2016.U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, whom Haley appointed to replace Jim DeMint after he resigned to lead the Heritage Foundation, will be the emcee.” And here’s something to consider: Haley is probably the most vulnerable GOP governor up for re-election in 2014 who’s not from a swing state or blue state. And it’s because of that vulnerability that has us scratching our heads as to why she’s surrounding herself with national GOP leaders at her re-election announcement. Is she running for re-election? Or launching a campaign to become national surrogate or a cabinet secretary for the next Republican presidency? Seems like an odd decision to send the message locally that she’s focused NATIONALLY.

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