President Obama has not ruled out a limited strike against Syria, despite rising congressional reluctance and the refusal by Great Britain's Parliament to be part of a military engagement, administration officials told congressional leaders Thursday.
"The officials made clear that the administration's focus is on preventing [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad] from using chemical weapons again," said an aide to a lawmaker who was on a briefing call. "The administration is figuring out the best way to do that, and is seeking as much international support as possible, but won't let that dictate what our policy will be."
Administration officials, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, and Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman James Winnefeld, briefed congressional leaders and the chairs and ranking members of national security committees in an unclassified telephone conference late Thursday, the aide said. Lawmakers on the call said the administration officials laid out the options currently being considered.
Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, offered an underlying sentiment that was echoed by others: that the Syrian government must be held accountable and stopped from using the weapons again. Ruppersberger also said that he agreed with Obama "that American boots on the ground is not a viable option."
However, Ruppersberger also said that, in his view, the United State must be careful in how it proceeds, and that it must act together with a coalition of countries. "The United States cannot be the lone sheriff of the whole world," he said.
At the same time, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is openly pressing the administration to take action. Pelosi said in a statement that, during the call, she expressed support for a "measured, targeted and limited approach the president may be considering.
"It is clear the American people are weary of war," Pelosi said in the statement. "However, Assad gassing his own people is an issue of our national security, regional stability and global security. We must be clear that the United States rejects the use of chemical weapons by Assad or any other regime." Pelosi also said she agrees with Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and other lawmakers who stated during the call the administration should consult more with Congress.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., called for giving "lethal aid to vetted elements of the Syrian opposition" while United Nations inspectors completed their work, according to a statement from his office. He also called for "limited, targeted strikes" in Syria.
The White House briefing comes after the administration asserted that Assad, whose country has been roiled in civil war for more than two years, crossed a "red line" by using chemical weapons against civilians. But there are growing calls on Capitol Hill to allow the U.N. inspectors time to finish their investigation and report back what they've found.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said earlier Thursday that the president was still contemplating his response and that the telephone briefing was neither the first nor the last consultation with Congress.
The administration suffered an apparent setback on Thursday when the British Parliament defeated Prime Minister David Cameron's motion to authorize strikes on Syria. Cameron was viewed as a likely ally against the Assad regime.
Asked whether the U.S. would strike Syria alone, Earnest said he would not speculate, but that international norms were important.
"The president did acknowledge … the role that international law would play as he assesses an appropriate response, and that is a factor that has been considered among all these other things that have gone into making this decision," he said.
Senate Democrats opened up on Thursday as well, after staying mostly quiet on the subject. Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said in an interview with CBS that he wants to "send a global message that the use of chemical weapons … is something that cannot stand." Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., warned against waiting too long before sanctioning the Syrian regime, saying that chemical weapons could be used against U.S. troops.
"We've got troops in the region," Casey said in an interview with MSNBC. "We've got troops that are potentially exposed, and we know that two enemies—the terrorist organization Hezbollah and the Iranian regime—are confederated with Mr. Assad, and they plot every day."
Menendez, who participated in the call, said he believes that under the law the president has the ability to go ahead with his plans, but that if the action went beyond 60 days, he would need to come before Congress for approval.
The War Powers Act calls for the president to inform Congress within 48 hours after military action takes place, if Congress did not authorize it. According to the law, if Congress does not take action after 60 days—either by declaring war or extending that period—the administration must cease its use of the armed forces.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said he wants the administration to seek a congressional vote on action in Syria, suggesting a difference between his position and Menendez's. "We shouldn't ask people to fight war unless they know that they've got the full weight of our political leadership behind them," Kaine said in an interview on CNN.
Earlier Thursday, Boehner spoke with Obama on the status of the deliberations over Syria. During the call, the speaker echoed concerns he raised in a letter Wednesday to the president, including questions about the legal justification for a military strike, according to an aide. Pelosi spoke to the president on Wednesday.
Some lawmakers—including Rep. David Schweikert, R-Ariz.—have suggested that liberal, antiwar Democrats aren't being as open about challenging Obama as they were when the Bush administration pondered going to war in Iraq.
But in fact, 53 Democrats, in a joint letter on Thursday, became the latest group of House members to publicly urge Obama to "seek an affirmative decision of Congress prior to committing any U.S. military engagement to this complex crisis."
The letter, penned by Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., also included some cautionary language: "While the ongoing human rights violations and continued loss of life are horrific, they should not draw us into an unwise war—especially without adhering to our own constitutional requirements," the letter states.
"We strongly support the work within the United Nations Security Council to build international consensus condemning the alleged use of chemical weapons and preparing an appropriate response; we should also allow the U.N. inspectors the space and time necessary to do their jobs."
The letter from Democrats followed a bipartisan letter on Wednesday to Obama signed by more than 100 members of Congress, mostly Republicans, insisting it would be unconstitutional if congressional authorization was not obtained prior to using military force in Syria. The number of lawmakers who had signed the letter by Thursday had swollen to 140, and it is still being circulated by Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va.
This article appears in the August 30, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.