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Obama and aides confront skeptical Congress on Syria strike

By Matt Spetalnick and Patricia Zengerle
September 02. 2013 2:53PM
A Free Syrian Army fighter runs for cover during clashes with forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad beside the Canadian Hospital in Aleppo, August 31, 2013. (Reuters)
As Obama pushes to punish Syria, lawmakers fear deep U.S. involvement
WASHINGTON, Sept 2 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama and his aides pressed U.S. lawmakers on Monday to approve military force against Syria but many members of Congress were worried that an attack would only drag America into another Middle Eastern conflict with no end in sight.

Obama's abrupt decision to halt plans for a strike against the government of President Bashar al-Assad and instead wait for congressional approval has generated a raging debate just as the president prepares to go to Sweden and Russia this week.

Armed with evidence they say proves Syria's government killed over 1,400 people with nerve agent sarin, Obama's top national security aides made their case to Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives in a 70-minute conference call, urging them to back Obama's request.

The White House argument is that Syria must be punished for the Aug. 21 chemical weapons onslaught and that at stake is the integrity of an international ban on such weapons and the need to safeguard U.S. national security interests and allies Israel, Jordan and Turkey.

As with most everything else that the divided Congress involves itself in, there was a deep disagreement on how to proceed, with some lawmakers worried the United States might be drawn into yet another Middle Eastern conflict in spite of Obama's pledges for a limited strike.

Overshadowing the debate are the ghosts of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, conflicts that lasted far longer and were far more expensive than first predicted. Congressional hesitancy reflects the overall weariness of war among Americans who oppose getting involved in Syria.

Representative Chris Van Hollen, a senior Democrat, said the wording of the White House's request to Congress for the authorization of the use of force was too open-ended and could lead to deep U.S. involvement in Syria, where more than 100,000 people have died in more than two years of conflict.

"There is no limitation on putting American soldiers on the ground. There is no end point" on the resolution, he said. "The draft resolution presented by the administration is overly broad, it provides too much of a blank check to the executive," he said.

Van Hollen was among Democratic lawmakers briefed by conference call by Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, national security adviser Susan Rice, intelligence director James Clapper and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.


Representative James McGovern, a liberal Democrat from Massachusetts who was also on the call, said he is skeptical that the plan to move forward with military strikes can help end the war in Syria. If the vote were taken today, he would vote no.

"People are horrified by the pictures of people suffering and they genuinely want to help. But people have become, it's more than just war-weary, they've become skeptical of the effectiveness of these military involvements," he said.

With Navy ships in place and ready to launch cruise missiles on Obama's order, no decision was likely until days after Congress returns from its summer recess on Sept. 9. In the interim, Obama is using the time to build his case.

At the White House, Obama was sitting down on Monday with two influential Republican senators, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who are among a group who want Obama to go beyond limited strikes and instead launch a broad strategy aimed at toppling Assad.

Washington's hesitancy has prompted mocking comments from Syrian leaders and a push from Assad's chief backer, Russia, to send members of the Russian parliament to the U.S. capital to argue against a strike.

Obama's gamble to seek congressional backing carries many risks, chief among them is that Congress will once again thwart him and make him look weak around the world.

The Democratic-led Senate is expected to approve U.S. military action, but it is unclear if the Republican-led House of Representatives, which routinely opposes Obama on just about everything, will provide its needed concurrence.

It may depend on building a majority House vote based on Obama's fellow Democrats joining those Republicans who support action, a senior House Republican aide told Reuters on Sunday.

"It's too early to speculate" what the House will do, the aide said, "but (House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi) is going to have to post a big number" among her members in support of it. The aide declined to predict how big. Republicans hold the House, 233-200 with two vacancies.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Representative Buck McKeon, a Republican, told CNN he is "still open" on whether the United States should take military action against Syria.

In a sign that Obama might get dragged into horse-trading on other issues in order to win support for his Syria plan, McKeon urged the administration to halt cuts in military spending.

"Our military has had over $1 trillion cut out of their budget in the last couple years and going forward," McKeon told CNN. "This surge, this sequestration, the president needs to fix. This would be a great time to fix that," he said.

WASHINGTON, Sept 1 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama and his top aides launched a full-scale political offensive on Sunday to persuade a skeptical Congress to approve a military strike against Syria, but faced an uphill struggle to win over many lawmakers and a war-weary American public.

Obama made a series of calls to members of the House of Representatives and Senate, with more scheduled for Monday, underscoring the task confronting the administration before it can go ahead with using force in response to a deadly chemical attack blamed on the Syrian government.

Dozens of lawmakers, some in tennis shirts or shirtsleeves, cut short their vacations and streamed into the corridors of the Capitol building for a Sunday afternoon intelligence briefing on Syria with Obama's national security team.

When they emerged nearly three hours later, there was no immediate sign that the many skeptics in Congress had changed their minds.

"I am very concerned about taking America into another war against a country that hasn't attacked us," said Representative Janice Hahn, a California Democrat. On the way out of the briefing, she said the participants appeared "evenly divided" on whether to give Obama approval.

None expressed doubts that Syria had engaged in chemical warfare. "The searing image of babies lined up dead, that's what I can't get out of my mind right now," Democratic Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz said after the closed-door briefing.

But the credibility of the administration's intelligence is turning out to be a less important issue than the nature and usefulness of the response.

Earlier in the day, Secretary of State John Kerry invoked the crimes of Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein and warned of a potential threat to Israel a day after Obama's decision to delay an imminent attack on Syrian targets and allow Congress to vote on it first.

Even as Kerry took to the airwaves touting new evidence that deadly sarin gas was used in the Aug. 21 chemical attack near Damascus, the scope of the challenge confronting the administration became apparent.

Lawmakers raised a broad array of concerns, including the potential effectiveness of limited strikes, the possible unintended consequence of dragging the United States into another open-ended Middle East conflict, the wisdom of acting without broader international backing to share the burden and the war fatigue of the American public.

Many in Congress have been able to avoid taking a position on the merits of a military strike, focusing instead on demands that Obama consult them and seek their approval.

While Kerry predicted Obama would win the endorsement he wants, a growing cacophony of congressional critics - ranging from liberal Democratic doves to Republican Tea Party conservatives - illustrated just how hard that will be.

At the same time, Kerry, the administration's most impassioned voice for intervention in Syria's 2-1/2-year civil war, was left to publicly defend Obama's stunning reversal, a decision that puts any strike on hold for at least nine days.

"This is squarely now in the hands of Congress," Kerry told CNN, saying he had confidence "they will do what is right because they understand the stakes."

In a round of television appearances, Kerry declined to say whether Obama would go ahead with military action if Congress rejects the president's request, as Britain's parliament did last week to derail London's role in any Syria military operation.

But, echoing Obama's comments in the White House Rose Garden on Saturday, he insisted the president had the right to act on his own if he chooses that course.

Obama is taking a gamble by putting the brakes on the military assault that he considers essential to maintain U.S. credibility after Assad crossed the "red line" set against the use of chemical weapons.


The consensus on Capitol Hill is that Obama has a good chance of winning approval in the Democratic-led Senate, but the vote appears too close to call in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where the president's opponents rarely miss an opportunity to block him.

Acknowledging that the administration has its work cut out for it to persuade some lawmakers, Kerry insisted they could not "have it both ways" by demanding a voice in the matter and then abdicating responsibility to uphold the international bans on chemical weapons use.

Kerry used the television appearances to provide further evidence backing accusations against the Syrian government.

"I can share with you today that blood and hair samples that have come to us through an appropriate chain of custody, from east Damascus, from first responders, it has tested positive for signatures of sarin," Kerry told CNN's "State of the Union."

It was the first time the administration had pinpointed what kind of chemical was used in the attack on a rebel-held area, which U.S. intelligence agencies said killed more than 1,400 people, many of them children.

"So this case is building and this case will build," Kerry told CBS's "Face the Nation."

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