It will not be easy for President Barack Obama to convince Congress to authorize U.S. missile strikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in retaliation for using chemical weapons on civilians last month in that country’s escalating civil war.
Congress is not in session – the House and Senate are on their summer recess – but Obama called select members back to Washington Sunday afternoon for an intelligence briefing with the president’s national security team.
Getting Congress to go along is one colossal problem. Getting the American public behind him is another. And it’s a problem that Obama is keenly aware of, based on his comments Tuesday.
When asked by reporters Tuesday what he wanted to tell the American people before heading into his first open meeting with lawmakers since announcing his plans on Saturday, Obama said that the proposed strikes on Syria are “proportional… limited, (and do) not involve boots on the ground,
“This is not Iraq, and this is not Afghanistan.”
After three hours behind closed doors, Sunday night, many lawmakers emerged still unconvinced Obama’s proposal to launch airstrikes against Assad would make it through the legislative branch.
“I am very concerned about taking America into another war against a country that hasn’t attacked us,” Representative Janice Hahn, a California Democrat, told Reuters after the meeting.
Patricia Zengerle and Matt Spetalnick, the Reuters reporters who covered the briefing, noted that most of those in attendance were convinced that Assad had used sarin gas on civilians.
“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 told reporters.
However, not everyone came away from the meeting believing strikes against Syria would solve problems there.
“I’m not convinced that the administration’s support will resolve the issues in Syria,” Representative Bennie Thompson, the top Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee, told Reuters, adding he was leaning toward a “no” vote.
When Obama announced plans Saturday to seek Congressional approval for strategic airstrikes, some Congressmen offered immediate support while others balked.
Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, criticized the White House resolution as “too broadly drafted” adding he won’t vote for “a partial blank check.” “The draft resolution presented by the administration does not currently meet that test,” Van Hollen said.”It is too broadly drafted, it’s too open ended.”
Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, also a Democrat, went on CNN’s State of the Union Sunday and offered his support for the resolution and predicted that Congress would ultimately approve the administration’s proposal “I think at the end of the day, Congress will rise to the occasion,” Rogers told CNN. “This is a national security issue. This isn’t about Barack Obama versus the Congress. This isn’t about Republicans versus Democrats.”
He’s certainly right. It’s not about Republicans versus Democrats. It’s about Democrats versus Democrats. After all, Representatives Hahn, Van Hollen and Thompson all belong to the president’s party, but they aren’t ready to line up behind his proposal – yet. Winning Democratic support in the House will be the key for the White House to get the resolution passed through Congress.
Rogers is probably also right that The People’s Branch will authorize U.S. military intervention eventually. But being skeptical about the intelligence community’s claims that our enemies have or are using weapons of mass destruction was a hard-learned lesson for many members of Congress. As Jim Naureckas pointed out yesterday on the blog for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting:
“The U.S. government, of course, has a track record that will incline informed observers to approach its claims with skepticism–particularly when it’s making charges about the proscribed weapons of official enemies. Kerry said in his address that “our intelligence community” has been “more than mindful of the Iraq experience”–as should be anyone listening to Kerry’s presentation, because the Iraq experience informs us that secretaries of State can express great confidence about matters that they are completely wrong about, and that U.S. intelligence assessments can be based on distortion of evidence and deliberate suppression of contradictory facts.”
Naureckas wears his own incredulity on his sleeve. Even while acknowledging that thousands of people in Damascus were treated for sarin gas exposure, he leaves room for the possibility that it wasn’t the Assad regime who released the toxin. He also points out several “strikingly vague,” claims from Secretary of State John Kerry about the origins of the chemical weapons attack, while calling into question the overall credibility of the evidence Kerry presented this weekend:
“It gives the strong impression of being pieced together from drone surveillance and NSA intercepts, supplemented by Twitter messages and YouTube videos, rather than from on-the-ground reporting or human intelligence. Much of what is offered tries to establish that the victims in Ghouta had been exposed to chemical weapons–a question that indeed had been in some doubt, but had already largely been settled by a report by Doctors Without Borders that reported that thousands of people in the Damascus area had been treated for ‘neurotoxic symptoms.'”
And Naureckas is not the only skeptic. Brazilian investigative reporter Pepe Escobar went on Russia Today on Saturday to call the administration’s intelligence into question. According to Escobar, Secretary of State Kerry is relying heavily on information received from Israel, a neighbor to Syria, which may have its own motivations to encourage U.S. intervention:
“The evidence that they have was offered essentially by (Binyamin) Benny Gantz – the chief of the Israeli Defense Force (Israel’s army) – directly to Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It was intel, basically, by Mossad (Israel’s intelligence agency). It can be extremely compromised. On top of this, we have a triple agenda here: the Obama administration, Israel and Saudi Arabia.”
But leaving aside the question of whether it was Bashar al-Assad’s army that used the chemical weapons or rebel groups hoping that the international community would believe it was Assad – thus triggering outside intervention – there are a number of factors that are not in question.
First and foremost, the Assad regime is exceedingly brutal to Syria’s people. Monstrous is not too strong a word. More than 100,000 people have died since the fighting began in 2011, many of them killed by the government – most of them are civilians, including women and children. It is notable here that the rebellion Assad is trying to put down is led by civilians, not soldiers, which means civilians are targets. Their deaths are not collateral damage caused by conventional warfare in an urban setting – the government wants them dead.
And from a certain perspective, the dead are the lucky ones. Other victims of the regime are kidnapped, tortured, raped and otherwise terrorized. Take for example the testimony of Navanethem Pillay, the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the United Nations, who testified before the U.N. Security Council in December 2011:
“Credible information gathered by my staff demonstrates patterns of systematic and widespread use of torture in interrogation and detention by Security forces. The pervasive readiness to resort to torture to instill fear indicates that State officials have condoned it. Information received from defectors indicates that they received orders to torture. Extensive reports of sexual violence in places of detention, primarily against men and boys, are particularly disturbing. These include reports of rape.” “Children have not been spared. State forces have disregarded children’s rights when acting to quell dissent. Killing of children by beating or shooting during demonstrations, as well as their torture and ill treatment has been widespread. According to reliable sources more than 300 children have been killed by State forces, including 56 in November. Schools have been used as detention facilities, demonstrating utter disregard for children’s rights to education and personal safety.”
Syrian troops controlled by Assad have been known to roll up on peaceful demonstrations against the regime and open up with machine gun fire. Spraying indiscriminately into crowds, Assad’s troops then cut off escape routes and pick off the survivors.
They send explosives into residential neighborhoods, wait rescue workers to arrive, then bomb the area again. This has been happening in Syria for more than two years.
The United Nations says that one-third of Syria’s population have been forced from their homes to escape the fighting. Out of a total population of 22.5 million, that’s 7.5 million who have fled the violence, and 1 million of those are children. The 7.5 million figure includes more than 2 million who have left the country altogether, and most of those are living in tents near Syria’s borders with Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey according to the U.S. High Council on Refugees. That makes the civil war there a full-blown, international, humanitarian crisis.
So why hasn’t the Obama administration taken a stronger stance against Assad before now? Part of it is because Syria’s civil war doesn’t affect American interests directly.
Part of it is because every time Americans go to war in the Middle East, the consequences are disastrous. And up to this point, there has been some hope that the situation may sort itself out without direct American intervention. After the chemical weapons attack, it’s obvious it will not sort itself out.
A year ago, Obama said if Syria’s government used chemical weapons on its own people, that would mean Assad had crossed “a red line,” provoking an American response. If the Syrian government could get away with that, the president said, it would send dangerous signals to other hostile governments – such as Iran and North Korea –they could use weapons of mass destruction and America would sit on its hands. He reiterated that point in the Rose Garden Saturday.
“Here’s my question for every member of Congress and every member of the global community,” Obama said. “What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?”
If Congress doesn’t get on board with his plan, the president has indicated a willingness to use his executive authority to carry out the airstrikes anyway. But he’s made it clear that he doesn’t want to take that route.
“While I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective,” Obama said.
He may not have a choice. Especially since the administration is facing challenges on Syria on the international front as well.
Great Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron made a similar plea to parliament last week and they turned him down. And although he has the authority to commit military resources without approval from his government’s legislative body, he has said he won’t. So if America does strike Syria, it will be without the help of our strongest ally.
The French government has indicated a willingness to get involved, but only if America goes first. “France cannot go in alone,” French Interior Minister Manuel Valls said in a radio interview this weekend. “A coalition is necessary.”
“We are entering a new phase,” Valls said against the backdrop of growing pressure on President Francois Hollande, because of the chemical weapons attacks. “We now have time and with this time, we must put it to good use so that things move.”