Biggest Problem for Syria Resolution: ‘What Happens Next?’

No one knows how “limited” U.S. military action really can be.

FILE - In this Monday, Jan. 28, 2013 file photograph, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., right, and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., left, announce with other senators that they have reached agreement on the principles of sweeping legislation to rewrite the nation's immigration laws, during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington. Menendez said Monday, Feb. 4, 2013, that allegations that he engaged with prostitutes in the Dominican Republic are false "smears." He said he has done nothing wrong and that allegations otherwise are "totally unsubstantiated."
National Journal
Michael Catalin and Billy House
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Michael Catalin Billy House
Sept. 4, 2013, 4:07 p.m.

It’s com­plic­ated. It’s un­pre­dict­able. Not un­like the lo­gist­ics of ac­tu­ally tak­ing mil­it­ary ac­tion against Syr­ia.

The ex­act word­ing of an au­thor­iz­ing res­ol­u­tion has emerged as a com­plex hitch in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s cam­paign to con­vince Con­gress to send a war-weary na­tion in­to an­oth­er mil­it­ary ac­tion. Much of the de­bate turns on pre­cise le­gis­lat­ive lan­guage, and at least one un­answer­able ques­tion: What will hap­pen after a strike?

Like al­most everything else dur­ing this con­gres­sion­al ses­sion, even if one cham­ber reaches con­sensus on how to amend Pres­id­ent Obama’s ini­tial war-powers pro­pos­al, there is no cer­tainty the oth­er cham­ber will simply ad­opt the same lan­guage. In this case, the Demo­crat­ic-led Sen­ate will likely go first. The Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee on Wed­nes­day ad­vanced a ver­sion of a res­ol­u­tion to the full Sen­ate, which is ex­pec­ted to de­bate the meas­ure on the floor next week when law­makers re­turn.

But the Re­pub­lic­an-con­trolled House may well head down its own path. House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee Chair­man Ed Royce, R-Cal­if., and oth­ers on his pan­el openly pondered the con­tents of a pos­sible House bill on Wed­nes­day dur­ing the cham­ber’s first pub­lic hear­ing in­to ac­tion against Syr­ia. Some have even ques­tioned wheth­er the House will even take up the is­sue.

Whatever hap­pens, a U.S. at­tack on the re­gime of Syr­i­an Pres­id­ent Bashar al-As­sad in re­tali­ation for us­ing chem­ic­al weapons still faces op­pos­i­tion from law­makers on both the left and the right.

The Sen­ate res­ol­u­tion, for ex­ample, passed in a tight 10-7 com­mit­tee vote that blurred party lines. Sen. Ed­ward Mar­key, D-Mass., voted “present.” Three Re­pub­lic­ans — For­eign Re­la­tions rank­ing mem­ber Bob Cork­er of Ten­ness­ee and Sens. John Mc­Cain and Jeff Flake, both of Ari­zona — joined the ma­jor­ity in back­ing the meas­ure. Sens. Tom Ud­all, D-N.M., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., voted with five com­mit­tee Re­pub­lic­ans against the meas­ure.

“This is a tightly tailored au­thor­iz­a­tion,” For­eign Re­la­tions Chair­man Robert Men­en­dez, D-N.J., pro­nounced of the fi­nal product. But Wed­nes­day’s de­bate and vote in the Sen­ate com­mit­tee laid bare the yawn­ing polit­ic­al di­vide with­in both parties.

One hurdle was Mc­Cain’s ob­jec­tion to an ab­sence of mus­cu­lar lan­guage in the Men­en­dez-Cork­er ver­sion of the res­ol­u­tion re­leased late Tues­day that Mc­Cain said he and Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham, R-S.C., were as­sured would be in the meas­ure. Mc­Cain told re­port­ers he wanted the policy to de­grade As­sad’s chem­ic­al-weapons cap­ab­il­ity, in­crease sup­port to res­ist­ance forces, and swing “bat­tle­field mo­mentum” away from the dic­tat­or.

Even­tu­ally Mc­Cain got his way, with the com­mit­tee ap­prov­ing his amend­ment by voice vote. “There is no strategy without that, ex­cept for sig­ni­fic­ant at­tack­ing of fa­cil­it­ies that de­liv­er chem­ic­al weapons,” Mc­Cain said.

In the House, “right now, we’re watch­ing what the Sen­ate does,” one seni­or lead­er­ship aide said on Wed­nes­day. But when the House re­turns next week, the aide said, there are two primary op­tions: Seek a vote on whatever res­ol­u­tion the Sen­ate passes or pur­sue ac­tion on a sep­ar­ate, House-writ­ten ver­sion. Either way, lead­er­ship aides in the House have pre­dicted an up­hill battle for pas­sage.

Moreover, Rep. Ileana Ros-Le­htin­en, R-Fla., men­tioned dur­ing the For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee hear­ing that there are ru­mors the House won’t vote on any res­ol­u­tion. Pressed later about that, a spokes­man for Ros-Le­htin­en re­spon­ded in an e-mail, “Ileana says mem­bers have shared the ru­mor with her that the Sen­ate would vote but that the House might not. It is someone else’s ru­mor. She doesn’t have any more back­ground.”

The lead­er­ship aide did not pan the idea that the House could with­hold ac­tion, but also would not con­firm that the op­tion was be­ing ser­i­ously con­sidered. The aide did point out that one-cham­ber pas­sage — or even just ap­prov­al of a less­er, “sense of Con­gress” res­ol­u­tion — would not carry the of­fi­cial weight of full con­gres­sion­al au­thor­iz­a­tion.

Mi­chael O’Han­lon, a seni­or fel­low at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion fo­cus­ing on de­fense and for­eign policy is­sues, says the point may be moot, since “Obama could strike Syr­ia without any con­gres­sion­al ap­prov­al at all.”

Fur­ther­more, O’Han­lon said, no mat­ter what Con­gress does, the real test fa­cing the ad­min­is­tra­tion “is how ef­fect­ive any op­er­a­tion proves — and how lim­ited it man­ages — to re­main. Those out­comes will de­term­ine the pub­lic re­ac­tion more than any­thing.”

Out­side of the com­mit­tee ac­tion, Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id, D-Nev., has said the U.S. should act in Syr­ia; the views of Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell, R-Ky., are not as clearly defined. Asked on Wed­nes­day wheth­er Mc­Con­nell would sup­port the res­ol­u­tion passed in com­mit­tee, an aide poin­ted to Mc­Con­nell’s com­ments from Tues­day call­ing on the ad­min­is­tra­tion to share more in­form­a­tion with the pub­lic and Con­gress.

Sen­ate lead­ers also at­ten­ded a closed-door brief­ing with ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing the deputy na­tion­al se­cur­ity ad­viser, ac­cord­ing to a Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic aide. Fur­ther clas­si­fied brief­ings will con­tin­ue all week, the aide said, with a bicam­er­al brief­ing on Thursday and a Sen­ate-only meet­ing set for Fri­day.

Over in the House, Royce and oth­er mem­bers of the For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee were rais­ing their own con­cerns about the po­ten­tial rami­fic­a­tions of a strike.

Testi­fy­ing be­fore the House pan­el as they had Tues­day be­fore the Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee, Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry, De­fense Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair­man Gen. Mar­tin De­mp­sey con­tin­ued to press law­makers Wed­nes­day for au­thor­iz­a­tion to use lim­ited mil­it­ary force.

“We are not ask­ing Amer­ica to go to war,” Kerry said at one point, seek­ing to de­flect ques­tions about the po­ten­tial es­cal­a­tion of hos­til­it­ies if the United States uses force.

“We all agree there will be no Amer­ic­an boots on the ground “¦ we have no in­ten­tion of as­sum­ing re­spons­ib­il­ity for As­sad’s civil war,” Kerry said. But De­mp­sey later ap­peared less than thrilled about hav­ing to dis­cuss ef­forts to im­pose lim­its on the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s time frame for the op­er­a­tion. Sen­ate and House draft pro­pos­als would lim­it it to 60 days.

“Mil­it­ar­ily, the broad­er the res­ol­u­tion, the more op­tions [it] can provide,” De­mp­sey curtly re­spon­ded at one point. He then re­minded law­makers that as part of the ori­gin­al pro­pos­al from the White House, “The pres­id­ent gave quite clear guid­ance that this will be a lim­ited and fo­cused op­er­a­tion, not an open-ended op­er­a­tion.”

Later, some law­makers ques­tioned wheth­er a House res­ol­u­tion should have some type of trig­ger word­ing al­low­ing for ad­di­tion­al re­sponses if As­sad were to use chem­ic­al weapons again. Also dis­cussed was wheth­er a pro­vi­sion should also be in­cluded to ex­pli­citly lim­it any ac­tion to pun­ish­ment for the use of chem­ic­al weapons — and to im­pact the bal­ance of power in Syr­ia’s on­go­ing con­flict.

Royce noted from the start of the hear­ing that Con­gress has ac­ted sev­er­al times in his­tory to au­thor­ize a pres­id­ent to use force. But, he said, “One thing dif­fer­ent here is that the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pro­pos­al sup­ports a U.S. mil­it­ary re­sponse against a coun­try in civil war. Need­less to say, this com­plic­ates the con­sid­er­a­tion.”

Royce also as­ser­ted the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s Syr­ia policy “doesn’t build con­fid­ence” and has been adrift “for over two years.” Al­though the pro­posed ac­tion aims to up­hold an in­ter­na­tion­al norm against the use of chem­ic­al weapons, Royce said he is troubled by the “un­for­tu­nate lack of in­ter­na­tion­al sup­port … there is no United Na­tions res­ol­u­tion of sup­port — nor NATO back­ing.”

He ac­know­ledged that the pres­id­ent has prom­ised a mil­it­ary op­er­a­tion would be lim­ited in scope and dur­a­tion. But he ques­tioned wheth­er that could be cer­tain. “That’s par­tic­u­larly true if Pres­id­ent Obama isn’t aim­ing to change the situ­ation on the ground,” said Royce. “What are the chances of es­cal­a­tion? Are dif­fer­ent scen­ari­os ac­coun­ted for? If our cred­ib­il­ity is on the line, as is ar­gued, what if As­sad re­tali­ates?”

But Obama had sup­port­ers in the room, too. “I strongly agree with Pres­id­ent Obama that the United States must re­spond to this flag­rant vi­ol­a­tion of in­ter­na­tion­al law with a lim­ited mil­it­ary strike,” said Rep. Eli­ot En­gel, D-N.Y., the com­mit­tee’s rank­ing Demo­crat. “We’re talk­ing about the cred­ib­il­ity of Amer­ica as a glob­al power.”

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