WASHINGTON — The Obama administration pressed Congress on Sunday for an expansive green light to attack Syria but faced Capitol Hill skepticism from both the right and left.
Secretary of State John Kerry appeared on five television networks Sunday to make the case for military action against the Syrian government for what he said was the use of sarin gas on civilians.
“We have learned through samples that were provided to the United States and that have now been tested from first responders in east Damascus (that) hair samples and blood samples have tested positive for signatures of sarin,” Kerry said on NBC's “Meet the Press.” “So this case is building and this case will build.”
While Kerry worked to convince Congress that the intelligence is accurate about the use of chemical weapons, lawmakers expressed more skepticism about the wisdom of potential airstrikes, as well as the language of the war powers authorization being sought by the White House. A round of briefings and press sessions Sunday led only to congressional promises to rewrite President Barack Obama's proposal and a reiteration of concerns.
“What I'm troubled by is after the strike, the Assad regime is still there,” said Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va. “Let's say we attack two air force bases. Certainly it would result in loss of life of young Syrian conscripts who have absolutely nothing to do with the (chemical attack), yet the Assad regime is still in place.”
Though the administration on Friday released an intelligence summary declaring with a “high degree of confidence” that Syria had used chemical weapons, Kerry's statements Sunday were the first to identify the specific chemical allegedly used.
“Bashar al-Assad now joins a list of Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein who have used these weapons in time of war,” Kerry said on NBC. “This is of great consequence to Israel, to Jordan, to Turkey, to the region and to all of us who care about enforcing the international norm with respect to chemical weapons.”
Obama's proposed language for congressional approval would authorize the president to use force “as he determines to be necessary and appropriate” in order to “prevent or deter the use or proliferation” of chemical or biological weapons, as well as other “weapons of mass destruction.”
Barring some action by Syria that would force Obama's hand, what the United States decides to do now rests in part on the administration's ability to persuade Congress to approve military action.
“Part of it will depend on internal Republican politics,” said Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University in New Jersey. “Part of it will depend on Obama, though. These last few days and 24 hours were not the best way to handle it politically. He has to make an aggressive push, an aggressive case, to both parties.”
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee plans to hold a hearing Tuesday on Syria. The House is sticking to its planned summer schedule and will return next week.
Lawmakers appeared divided into several groups. Some want to strike hard and fast, some want to stay out of Syria altogether, and a good number want to hear more from both the administration and their constituents.
“If the vote were held today, it would probably be a 'no' vote,” Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., the former chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said on “Fox News Sunday.” “It is going to be difficult to get the vote through in Congress, especially when there is going to be time during the next nine days for opposition to build up to it.”
What is sarin?
Originally developed in Germany before World War II as a pesticide, sarin is a colorless and tasteless nerve agent that can cause convulsions, paralysis and death.
Exposure to even a tiny drop can cause sweating and muscle twitching, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. During the Cold War, the United States developed a sarin stockpile, as did the Soviet Union, but both the U.S. and Russia have since signed an international treaty outlawing the use of all chemical weapons.
Syria is one of five countries that have not signed or ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention.
— McClatchy Newspapers
Several key Republican senators strongly indicated Sunday that they will not vote to give Obama authorization for a missile attack on Syria unless the White House first lays out “a strategy and a plan” to stop the Assad regime from ever again using chemical weapons.
The senators, led by John McCain of Arizona, also signaled that they will use Obama's offer to seek congressional approval before any attack on Syria to press the administration and the Pentagon to make sure that a U.S. reprisal is a clear warning to Assad that he risks losing his hold over the war-torn country if any more chemical attacks are unleashed upon the Syrian people.
“We need to have a strategy and a plan,” McCain said on the CBS program “Face the Nation.” “In our view, the best way to eliminate the threat of Bashar Assad's continued use of chemical weapons would be the threat of his removal from power. And that, I believe, has to be part of what we tell the American people.”
Obama may face some resistance from members of his own party. Democrats as well as Republicans left a classified briefing on Capitol Hill expressing reservations about giving the president authority for a strike, although they said they were persuaded that chemical weapons were used.
''There's a great deal of skepticism that even a limited strike is likely to be effective,” Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., said as he exited the briefing, which was attended by more than 100 lawmakers from the House and Senate.
The authorization being discussed is open-ended with “no limitations in either time or scope of activity,” Himes said. “I've got a long way to go personally before I can be supportive of this.”
Some conservatives and liberals are united for disparate reasons in saying the United States should simply steer clear of Syria altogether. The senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, said Sunday on “Fox News Sunday” that he doesn't think Congress will approve the authorization.
“Another thing we want to know, and my constituents ask over and over, is what is the relationship to the United States?” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md. “In other words, is there a threat?”
Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky commended Obama for asking for congressional authorization but predicted that passage on Capitol Hill would be a break-even proposition.
“Absolutely, if Congress votes this down, we should not be involved in the Syrian war,” Paul said on NBC's “Meet the Press.” “And I think it's at least 50/50 whether the House will vote down involvement in the civil war.”
Kerry expressed confidence that Congress ultimately would back the president. Failure to do so would amount to the U.S. turning its back on Israel, other allies in the region and the Syrian people, he said.
“I can't contemplate that the Congress would turn its back on all of that responsibility,” Kerry said on Fox. He said Obama was making a “courageous decision” by seeking congressional approval.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said he was confident that Congress will grant the president military authorization.
“We are strong when we act together,” he told CBS. “But if the president were to do something without congressional support, it's just not fair to the men and women we ask to fight our battles to send them in not knowing whether the American public or Congress backs them up.”
This report includes material from the Tribune Washington Bureau and Bloomberg News.
Text of President Barack Obama's remarks Saturday
Good afternoon, everybody. Ten days ago, the world watched in horror as men, women and children were massacred in Syria in the worst chemical weapons attack of the 21st century. Yesterday the United States presented a powerful case that the Syrian government was responsible for this attack on its own people.
Our intelligence shows the Assad regime and its forces preparing to use chemical weapons, launching rockets in the highly populated suburbs of Damascus, and acknowledging that a chemical weapons attack took place. And all of this corroborates what the world can plainly see — hospitals overflowing with victims; terrible images of the dead. All told, well over 1,000 people were murdered. Several hundred of them were children — young girls and boys gassed to death by their own government.
This attack is an assault on human dignity. It also presents a serious danger to our national security. It risks making a mockery of the global prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. It endangers our friends and our partners along Syria's borders, including Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. It could lead to escalating use of chemical weapons, or their proliferation to terrorist groups who would do our people harm.
In a world with many dangers, this menace must be confronted.
Now, after careful deliberation, I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets. This would not be an open-ended intervention. We would not put boots on the ground. Instead, our action would be designed to be limited in duration and scope. But I'm confident we can hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons, deter this kind of behavior, and degrade their capacity to carry it out.
Our military has positioned assets in the region. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs has informed me that we are prepared to strike whenever we choose. Moreover, the chairman has indicated to me that our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive; it will be effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now. And I'm prepared to give that order.
But having made my decision as commander in chief based on what I am convinced is our national security interests, I'm also mindful that I'm the president of the world's oldest constitutional democracy. I've long believed that our power is rooted not just in our military might, but in our example as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. And that's why I've made a second decision: I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people's representatives in Congress.
Over the last several days, we've heard from members of Congress who want their voices to be heard. I absolutely agree. So this morning, I spoke with all four congressional leaders, and they've agreed to schedule a debate and then a vote as soon as Congress comes back into session.
In the coming days, my administration stands ready to provide every member with the information they need to understand what happened in Syria and why it has such profound implications for America's national security. And all of us should be accountable as we move forward, and that can only be accomplished with a vote.
I'm confident in the case our government has made without waiting for U.N. inspectors. I'm comfortable going forward without the approval of a United Nations Security Council that, so far, has been completely paralyzed and unwilling to hold Assad accountable. As a consequence, many people have advised against taking this decision to Congress, and undoubtedly, they were impacted by what we saw happen in the United Kingdom this week when the Parliament of our closest ally failed to pass a resolution with a similar goal, even as the prime minister supported taking action.
Yet, 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. We should have this debate, because the issues are too big for business as usual. And this morning, John Boehner, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell agreed that this is the right thing to do for our democracy.
A country faces few decisions as grave as using military force, even when that force is limited. I respect the views of those who call for caution, particularly as our country emerges from a time of war that I was elected in part to end. But if we really do want to turn away from taking appropriate action in the face of such an unspeakable outrage, then we must acknowledge the costs of doing nothing.
Here's my question for every member of Congress and every member of the global community: What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price? What's the purpose of the international system that we've built if a prohibition on the use of chemical weapons that has been agreed to by the governments of 98 percent of the world's people and approved overwhelmingly by the Congress of the United States is not enforced?
Make no mistake — this has implications beyond chemical warfare. If we won't enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules? To governments who would choose to build nuclear arms? To terrorist who would spread biological weapons? To armies who carry out genocide?
We cannot raise our children in a world where we will not follow through on the things we say, the accords we sign, the values that define us.
So just as I will take this case to Congress, I will also deliver this message to the world. While the U.N. investigation has some time to report on its findings, we will insist that an atrocity committed with chemical weapons is not simply investigated, it must be confronted.
I don't expect every nation to agree with the decision we have made. Privately we've heard many expressions of support from our friends. But I will ask those who care about the writ of the international community to stand publicly behind our action.
And finally, let me say this to the American people: I know well that we are weary of war. We've ended one war in Iraq. We're ending another in Afghanistan. And the American people have the good sense to know we cannot resolve the underlying conflict in Syria with our military. In that part of the world, there are ancient sectarian differences, and the hopes of the Arab Spring have unleashed forces of change that are going to take many years to resolve. And that's why we're not contemplating putting our troops in the middle of someone else's war.
Instead, we'll continue to support the Syrian people through our pressure on the Assad regime, our commitment to the opposition, our care for the displaced, and our pursuit of a political resolution that achieves a government that respects the dignity of its people.
But we are the United States of America, and we cannot and must not turn a blind eye to what happened in Damascus. Out of the ashes of world war, we built an international order and enforced the rules that gave it meaning. And we did so because we believe that the rights of individuals to live in peace and dignity depends on the responsibilities of nations. We aren't perfect, but this nation more than any other has been willing to meet those responsibilities.
So to all members of Congress of both parties, I ask you to take this vote for our national security. I am looking forward to the debate. And in doing so, I ask you, members of Congress, to consider that some things are more important than partisan differences or the politics of the moment.
Ultimately, this is not about who occupies this office at any given time; it's about who we are as a country. I believe that the people's representatives must be invested in what America does abroad, and now is the time to show the world that America keeps our commitments. We do what we say. And we lead with the belief that right makes might — not the other way around.
We all know there are no easy options. But I wasn't elected to avoid hard decisions. And neither were the members of the House and the Senate. I've told you what I believe, that our security and our values demand that we cannot turn away from the massacre of countless civilians with chemical weapons. And our democracy is stronger when the President and the people's representatives stand together.
I'm ready to act in the face of this outrage. Today I'm asking Congress to send a message to the world that we are ready to move forward together as one nation.
Thanks very much.