As the U.S. Congress and the American public debate what ought to be done with Syria, President Obama said a red line has been crossed by the Syrian government. He says it's not his red line, but a red line that violates international norms. Many in Washington agree, among them Jon Huntsman, one of the Republican contenders for the White House in the last presidential election.
Jon Huntsman was governor of the western state Utah when he was appointed by President Obama to be the top diplomat in Beijing.
“There isn’t an easy set of policy choices here, there is no good answer, but you have to recognize the circumstances for what they are, and that is, a threshold has been crossed and there has to be some response to that,” Huntsman told VOA in an interview conducted at his home in Washington.
While acknowledging the toll that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have exerted on the American public, Huntsman says to do nothing would send the most unfortunate message.
“Recognizing where we have been in the last 13 years in terms of boots on the ground, regime change, pre-emptive measures, a lot of the approaches that were taken in the past while that proved to be very costly and hurtful to U.S. prestige and standing abroad, I think we have to learn from those lessons while at the same time, we do have to recognize that chemical weapons have been used here,” he said.
Secretary of State John Kerry, in noting the administration’s decision to take action in Syria, said administration officials, himself included, are aware of the war weariness many Americans feel: “we know that after a decade of conflict, the American people are tired of war. Believe me, I am, too. But fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility.”
The shadow of Iraq has not only affected American public opinion, but is also seen as having led to the British Parliament’s decision to not join in the coalition this time around. But some analysts say “not all is Afghanistan or Iraq,” and the circumstances that are prompting the White House’s decision to intervene in Syria are very different from the attack on Iraq back in 2003 over allegations - which later turned out to not have been substantiated - that Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.
Jeffrey Pryce, a former Pentagon official who teaches at Johns Hopkins University, described the difference as “night and day.”
In the case of Syria, Pryce pointed out, intelligence gathering precedes military action, instead of the other way around, and there is plenty of proof that Syria’s government was behind the August 21 chemical weapons attack outside Damascus.
“You have that coming from several different sources, including European intelligence; you have the Arab League stating pretty unequivocally that this is something for which they hold the Assad regime accountable,” Pryce said in an interview.
President Obama’s decision to seek approval from Congress for an attack on Syria has surprised many. Critics say it is a decision made out of political - rather than national security - considerations.
Huntsman, for one, disagrees with the approach.
“So if I were sitting at the White House, I think I would have consulted the National Security advisers, briefed all of the relevant committee chairs and minority members, and done what I thought is right for the United States - I don’t think a vote is needed in this case," he said.
Huntsman said he’s familiar with the battle between the Legislature and Executive branches, because of his experience serving as governor of Utah.
“My fear is that you set a precedent and Congress begins to take a little more authority away from that which is duly reserved for the Executive branch, and the next time you have a similar set of circumstances, Congress will expect to take a vote again, and that takes time away from the Executive branch, it changes their strategy in terms of how you now have to fashion the issue for Congress - maybe not for other constituencies," said Huntsman.
Huntsman believes it remains a prerogative of the presidency to act based on consultations alone with Congress, “and then to get about the business of the country.”
President Obama Wednesday defended his decision to seek congressional approval for a limited strike against the Assad regime in Syria.
“The fact that I’ve had a chance to speak to many of you, and Congress as a whole is taking this issue with the soberness and seriousness that it deserves, is greatly appreciated and I think vindicates the decision for us to present this issue to Congress," the president said.
Until now, Obama has been criticized by some for his reluctance to get involved in the Syrian civil war. Pryce said that makes his call to arms more credible. “I think that he’s seen as a reluctant warrior, and that’s probably a strength at this point.”
While speaking to members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State John Kerry emphasized the gravity of individual members' decisions.
“The world is watching not just to see what we decide, but it is watching to see how we make this decision - whether in a dangerous world we can still make our government speak with one voice,” Kerry warned.
Huntsman agreed that choices made in Washington reverberate regionally and globally.
“This, unlike some of the other conflicts that we’ve waged in years gone by, is connected to different players in the region who have an interest in the outcome, and the outcome could very well determine what they choose to do in terms of how they move the pieces on the chess board,” he said.
The White House has described its intended military action against the Assad regime in Syria as “limited” and “proportional,” and does not involve American troops on the ground. Whether the White House can persuade Congress - and the American public - to go along - remains to be seen.