Obama’s Pleas Draw Mixed Reactions From Hill

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President Barack Obama addresses the nation in a live televised speech from the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013. President Obama blended the threat of military action with the hope of a diplomatic solution as he works to strip Syria of its chemical weapons.
National Journal
George E. Condon Jr. and Billy House Stacy Kaper Elahe Izadi
George E. Condon Jr. and Billy House Stacy Kaper Elahe Izadi
Sept. 10, 2013, 7:19 p.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama made an un­usu­ally emo­tion­al pitch to Con­gress and the coun­try Tues­day night, seek­ing to rally sup­port for a strong Amer­ic­an re­sponse to Syr­ia’s use of chem­ic­al weapons, an at­tack he cast as hor­ri­fy­ing, grue­some, and ter­rible.

The re­sponse from Cap­it­ol Hill was swift but fairly pre­dict­able, with many Demo­crats say­ing they heard a mes­sage of strength from the pres­id­ent while Re­pub­lic­ans were largely un­con­vinced that the ad­min­is­tra­tion has a firm handle on the on­go­ing crisis.

Yet law­makers from both parties seized on a small sec­tion of Obama’s 15-minute ad­dress, the few­er than 300 words in a 2,200-word speech that de­scribed Rus­sia’s ef­forts to pro­duce an in­ter­na­tion­al agree­ment re­quir­ing Syr­i­an Pres­id­ent Bashar al-As­sad to re­lin­quish his mil­it­ary’s chem­ic­al weapons.

The pres­id­ent an­nounced that Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry will meet on Thursday with the Rus­si­an for­eign min­is­ter, and Obama said he will con­tin­ue his own talks with Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin, a staunch ally of As­sad. He did not say how long he was will­ing to hold off his use of mil­it­ary force, say­ing the armed forces will “re­spond if dip­lomacy fails.”

But, less than a week after he asked Con­gress to au­thor­ize a mil­it­ary strike on Syr­ia, the pres­id­ent an­nounced that he has asked for that vote to be delayed to give dip­lo­mats a chance to pur­sue what he called the prom­ising Rus­si­an ini­ti­at­ive.

The delay gave an al­most un­pre­ced­en­ted twist to an ad­dress that had been planned to press Con­gress to vote quickly on his re­quest. In­stead, Obama used it to make the case for a re­sponse without know­ing if that re­sponse will be mil­it­ary or dip­lo­mat­ic. Based on their in­stant re­sponses Tues­day night, it was clear most mem­bers prefer the lat­ter.

“I sup­port his dip­lo­mat­ic ef­forts to promptly bring Syr­ia’s chem­ic­al weapons ar­sen­al, one of the world’s largest, un­der in­ter­na­tion­al con­trol,” said Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee Chair­man Carl Lev­in, D-Mich. “I agree with the pres­id­ent that Syr­ia and Rus­sia would not have raised that pos­sib­il­ity if not for the cred­ible threat of mil­it­ary force.”

Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee Chair­man Robert Men­en­dez, D-N.J., said in a state­ment that while he has doubts about “this 11th-hour of­fer, it would be wrong to slam the door shut without due con­sid­er­a­tion.

“A ne­go­ti­ated solu­tion to a crisis is al­ways prefer­able and if this pos­sib­il­ity is le­git­im­ate, I’ll give it ser­i­ous thought,” Men­en­dez said. “At the same time, the cred­ible use of mil­it­ary force is ne­ces­sary to keep on the table.”

Two Sen­ate hawks, however, said Obama isn’t be­ing strong enough in his re­sponse to As­sad’s use of chem­ic­al weapons in Au­gust. Sens. John Mc­Cain, R-Ar­iz., and Lind­sey Gra­ham, R-S.C., re­leased a joint state­ment say­ing they “re­gret that he did not speak more force­fully about the need to in­crease our mil­it­ary as­sist­ance to mod­er­ate op­pos­i­tion forces in Syr­ia, such as the Free Syr­i­an Army.”

“We also re­gret that he did not lay out a clear­er plan to test the ser­i­ous­ness of the Rus­si­an and Syr­i­an pro­pos­al to trans­fer the As­sad re­gime’s chem­ic­al weapons to in­ter­na­tion­al cus­tody,” Mc­Cain and Gra­ham said.

In his speech, the pres­id­ent talked of dip­lo­mat­ic agree­ments and in­ter­na­tion­al con­ven­tions against chem­ic­al weapons. But the law­yer in him took a back seat to the fath­er as he re­peatedly painted a vivid pic­ture of the suf­fer­ing caused by Syr­ia’s Aug. 21 use of sar­in gas against As­sad’s op­pon­ents. Sev­en times in the 15-minute ad­dress, the pres­id­ent spoke emo­tion­ally of the chil­dren who were killed and maimed in that at­tack.

“The im­ages from this mas­sacre are sick­en­ing,” he said. “Men, wo­men, chil­dren ly­ing in rows, killed by pois­on gas, oth­ers foam­ing at the mouth, gasp­ing for breath, a fath­er clutch­ing his dead chil­dren, im­plor­ing them to get up and walk.” Grimly, he urged mem­bers of Con­gress “to view those videos of the at­tack and then ask, what kind of world will we live in if the United States of Amer­ica sees a dic­tat­or brazenly vi­ol­ate in­ter­na­tion­al law with pois­on gas and we choose to look the oth­er way?” Dir­ect­ing re­marks to his own polit­ic­al base, lib­er­als, he asked them to think of “those im­ages of chil­dren writh­ing in pain and go­ing still on a cold hos­pit­al floor, for some­times res­ol­u­tions and state­ments of con­dem­na­tion are simply not enough.”

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said she is work­ing on an amend­ment for con­di­tion­al use of force. “I’m work­ing with my col­leagues in the Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee on an amend­ment to give dip­lomacy a chance to work, but to also pres­sure the Syr­i­ans to take con­crete steps to­wards the trans­fer of their chem­ic­al weapons to in­ter­na­tion­al con­trol,” she said in a press re­lease.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who has pro­posed an al­tern­at­ive to the res­ol­u­tion au­thor­iz­ing use of force against Syr­ia that passed out of the Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee last week, told Na­tion­al Journ­al Daily that many of his col­leagues op­pose the pres­id­ent’s em­phas­is on mil­it­ary ac­tion, say­ing “we just re­spect­fully dis­agree that an im­min­ent strike will do any­thing” but cre­ate in­stabil­ity.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said she would be will­ing to look at a pro­pos­al to re­quire Syr­ia to turn over its chem­ic­al weapons that has clear bind­ing pro­to­cols to se­cure all the coun­try’s chem­ic­al weapons, and veri­fy their de­struc­tion. But she ex­pressed con­cerns that the pres­id­ent lacks a long-term strategy for the Middle East.

“I re­main con­cerned and I know many Alaskans agree that this ad­min­is­tra­tion does not have a co­her­ent strategy for the re­gion,” she said in a state­ment. “The pres­id­ent needs to clearly ar­tic­u­late how this Syr­ia plan lines up with any broad­er vis­ion for the Middle East and how our na­tion­al se­cur­ity in­terests are pro­tec­ted.”

In the House, Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi, D-Cal­if., called the pres­id­ent’s ad­dress “a prin­cipled present­a­tion to the Amer­ic­an people as to how the As­sad re­gime’s use of chem­ic­al weapons im­pacts our na­tion­al se­cur­ity and why the re­gime must be held re­spons­ible.”

Re­pub­lic­an Reps. John Kline of Min­nesota and Vern Buchanan of Flor­ida re­mained un­moved in op­pos­ing Obama’s re­quest for mil­it­ary strikes in Syr­ia. “The pres­id­ent’s re­marks to the na­tion once again fell short of provid­ing a clear ra­tionale for mil­it­ary in­ter­ven­tion,” Kline said.

Buchanan also said he re­mained op­posed to mil­it­ary ac­tion, but ad­ded, “I do, however, agree with the pres­id­ent that Rus­sia’s pro­pos­al to ad­dress Syr­ia through dip­lo­mat­ic ne­go­ti­ations should be thor­oughly ex­plored.”

House Speak­er John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id, D-Nev., had no im­me­di­ate re­sponses to the pres­id­ent’s ad­dress Tues­day night, aides said.

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