Congress Scrambles to Adapt to Russian Proposal on Syria

Philip Bump, Atlantic Wire
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Philip Bump, Atlantic Wire
Sept. 10, 2013, 11:02 a.m.

Both the Sen­ate and the House are re­vis­ing, but not abandon­ing, their plans for au­thor­iz­ing the use of force in Syr­ia in light of the emer­ging com­prom­ise on its chem­ic­al weapons. It’s the stick Pres­id­ent Obama in­sists is re­spons­ible for the car­rot of com­prom­ise — but the ef­fort still faces a great deal of op­pos­i­tion from both parties.

Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry, Sec­ret­ary of De­fense Chuck Hagel, and the chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mar­tin De­mpsy, made their third col­lect­ive ap­pear­ance be­fore a con­gres­sion­al com­mit­tee on Tues­day morn­ing. Speak­ing to the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, the group made the same points: We must de­fend the stand­ard pro­hib­it­ing the use of chem­ic­al weapons. This is vi­tal to our troops; it is vi­tal to our al­lies in the Middle East who are “just a strong wind” away from be­ing in­jured by these at­tacks.

“Let me as­sure you,” Kerry said, “the pres­id­ent of the United States didn’t just wake up one day and flip­pantly say, ‘Let’s take mil­it­ary ac­tion in Syr­ia.’ He didn’t choose this.” It was As­sad, he said, that forced the is­sue. Kerry also re­cog­nized the polit­ics at hand. “I know what you’re all hear­ing. The in­stant re­ac­tion of Amer­ic­ans all over the coun­try is ‘Woah! We don’t want to go to war again!’ … I get it.”

Kerry re­it­er­ated the need for au­thor­iz­a­tion in or­der for the com­prom­ise he awk­wardly in­tro­duced on Monday, after dis­cuss­ing it with Rus­si­an For­eign Min­is­ter Sergey Lav­rov last week (and who he was sched­uled to speak with after the hear­ing on Tues­day). Cit­ing an old say­ing — “noth­ing fo­cuses the mind like the pro­spect of hanging” — Kerry ar­gued that au­thor­iz­a­tion was needed in or­der to keep Rus­sia and Syr­ia in­ter­ested in com­ing to the ne­go­ti­at­ing table. He also offered sup­port for a new round of peace talks in Geneva, say­ing: “We don’t be­lieve there is any mil­it­ary solu­tion to what is hap­pen­ing in Syr­ia. But make no mis­take: No polit­ic­al solu­tion will be achiev­able as long as As­sad be­lieves he can gas his way out of this situ­ation.”

How long au­thor­iz­a­tion might be needed is un­clear. “We’re wait­ing for that pro­pos­al” from the in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity, Kerry said, “but we’re not wait­ing for long.”

Up­date, 11:30 a.m.: A mo­ment of con­ten­tion: Rep. Jeff Miller of Flor­ida pressed Kerry on why Syr­ia, with its chem­ic­al weapons, de­man­ded ac­tion while North Korea, which also has the weapons, doesn’t. Kerry began to an­swer, slowly, when Miller jumped back in to press him for an an­swer. Kerry, angry, asked, “You don’t really want an­swers, do you?” Miller replied that he was lim­ited on time and re­minded Kerry that, “this is not the Sen­ate; we do not fili­buster here.”

On the oth­er side of the Cap­it­ol, a group of seni­or Sen­ate lead­ers began re­vis­ing the au­thor­iz­a­tion for the use of force that its For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee passed last week. As Politico re­ports, the group in­cludes hawks like Sen­at­ors John Mc­Cain of Ari­zona and Lind­sey Gra­ham of South Car­o­lina, as well as Robert Men­en­dez of New Jer­sey who chairs that com­mit­tee.

The broad out­lines of the plan would call for the United Na­tions to pass a res­ol­u­tion as­sert­ing that Bashar As­sad’s re­gime in Syr­ia used chem­ic­al weapons in the coun­try’s on­go­ing civil war. A UN team would be re­quired to re­move the chem­ic­al weapons with­in a spe­cified time­frame. If the weapons were un­able to be re­moved with­in that timetable, then the United States would be au­thor­ized to use mil­it­ary force against the coun­try, the source said Tues­day. The timeline is still be­ing hammered out by the group.

Mc­Cain, for his part, isn’t ter­ribly ex­cited about the com­prom­ise plan. Speak­ing to CBS This Morn­ing, as re­por­ted by Politico:

I’m very skep­tic­al, and we should be since Bashar As­sad has re­fused to ac­know­ledge that he even has chem­ic­al weapons. I think the best test right away would be the Syr­i­an ac­cept­ance of in­ter­na­tion­al mon­it­ors to go to these chem­ic­al weapons sites and get them un­der con­trol im­me­di­ately. … If he’s ser­i­ous, then let the mon­it­ors in there right away.

Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell, fa­cing an out­spoken con­ser­vat­ive primary op­pon­ent, fi­nally offered his opin­ion on Syr­ia on Tues­day. Like that op­pon­ent, Mc­Con­nell is op­posed, Ya­hoo re­ports.

The pres­id­ent also still faces skep­ti­cism from the left. In an opin­ion piece at The Guard­i­an on Tues­day, Cali­for­nia Rep. Bar­bara Lee de­fen­ded her pro­pos­al to block the abil­ity to use force in re­sponse to Syr­ia’s use of chem­ic­al weapons.

Strikes against Syr­i­an mil­it­ary tar­gets not only have the risk of dir­ect ci­vil­ian cas­u­al­ties — some­times, in war, cal­lously called “col­lat­er­al dam­age” — but will not de­ter the As­sad re­gime from its con­tin­ued as­sault against his own people. Many ex­perts agree that these strikes would do more harm than good, and could lead the US deep­er and deep­er in­to the com­plex Syr­i­an civil war, which 60% of Amer­ic­ans op­pose. The path for­ward is clear: we must sup­port force­ful dip­lomacy, not mil­it­ary force.

 In one re­spect, Lee’s pro­pos­al goes fur­ther than the ad­min­is­tra­tion, call­ing for a Syr­i­an war crimes tribunal.

How Lee’s pro­pos­al fares in the House isn’t clear — nor is it ob­vi­ous what the Sen­ate’s fi­nal pro­pos­al will look like, or how any votes will come to­geth­er. For the pres­id­ent, though, the polit­ic­al tide has turned. He’s op­er­at­ing from a po­s­i­tion of much great­er strength than on Monday. Kerry sug­ges­ted that the ad­min­is­tra­tion won’t wait long for a com­prom­ise to be hammered out, but it is prob­ably will­ing to wait long enough for Con­gress to, at last, sign on in sup­port.

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