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US Congress Questions Rationale for Striking Syria

President Barack Obama speaks about Syria during a joint news conference with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt in Stockholm, Sept. 4, 2013.
President Barack Obama speaks about Syria during a joint news conference with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt in Stockholm, Sept. 4, 2013.
President Barack Obama’s abrupt decision to seek congressional authorization for striking Syria has had at least one salutary effect so far: it has given Americans and their elected representatives a chance to express serious reservations about the limits of U.S. military intervention in shaping troubled foreign societies.
 
Whichever way Congress votes in giving President Obama the authorization he seeks, the congressional hearings this week have been extraordinary for their introspection and bipartisan nature.
 
Strange bedfellows have come together in both agreement and disagreement about the wisdom of hitting Syria in the aftermath of the alleged killing of hundreds of civilians in a Damascus suburb Aug. 21 with the nerve agent, sarin.  A trio of U.S. war veterans – Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey – have struggled to convince members of Congress that “limited” strikes on Syria will deter Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from using chemical weapons again.
 
The three also wanted to convince Congress that such strikes would not embroil the U.S. in a wider war, and show other U.S. adversaries such as Iran that Washington is serious about upholding red lines against the development, proliferation or use of weapons of mass destruction.
 
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 10-7 on Wednesday in favor of giving the administration up to 90 days to conduct the strikes. But at a hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee that took place while the Senate panel voted, isolationist Tea Party Republicans and anti-war Democrats appeared to outnumber neoconservatives and humanitarian interventionists.
 
‘Who are the good guys?’
 
One of the toughest exchanges took place between Hagel and Representative Tom Marino, a Republican from Pennsylvania. Marino said he feared that hitting Assad would benefit the Syrian opposition, which includes Islamic extremists who hate the United States.
 
“Who are the good guys over there in Syria?” Marino asked. “Do you trust these people?”
 
Hagel, a decorated Vietnam War veteran who voted for the Iraq war but quickly came to regret that, conceded that there are “various groups that are part of the opposition.” Then Hagel tried to change the subject by saying that “the focus is not on good guys or bad guys, but on a narrow authorization” for the use of force to degrade Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons again.
 
Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, right, appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sept. 3, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington.Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, right, appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sept. 3, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
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Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, right, appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sept. 3, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, right, appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sept. 3, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Kerry also tried to emphasize the narrow nature of the strikes the administration contemplates, insisting that, “I don’t believe we’re going to war.” However, Dempsey admitted that attacking Syria was “an act of war” and that the United States had to be prepared for a variety of responses, including terrorism and cyber attacks.
 
Overall, the hearings underlined what public opinion polls have shown – that most Americans do not support direct U.S. military intervention in yet another Middle Eastern country. After a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan – with no dramatic improvement in either society despite the outlay of trillions of U.S. dollars and the loss of thousands of American and foreign lives -- the American public is weary of continuing to bear the burden of being what Kerry, echoing former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, called “the indispensable nation.”
 
The Obama administration is also having trouble defending its goals for the Syria mission – a kind of “Goldilocks,” not-too-hot, not-too-cold series of actions meant to deter Assad from using chemical weapons again and uphold U.S. credibility without giving too much advantage to rebels who have also committed serious human rights abuses.
 
‘There are no good guys’
 
Jeff Duncan, a congressman from South Carolina, summed up the feelings of many Americans when he said, “We shouldn’t be drug into someone else’s civil war where there are no good guys.”
 
Kerry, Hagel and Dempsey tried to counter those sentiments by warning there would serious consequences if the U.S. doesn’t respond to Assad’s apparently massive use of chemical arms. They said a failure to act would lead to more innocent civilians being gassed, chemical weapons potentially proliferating and threatening U.S. military forces abroad and even the U.S. homeland.
 
Kerry and Hagel also insisted that Iran would be emboldened to continue a nuclear program that could give it the capability to make bombs.
 
But if Iran was supposed to be the administration’s trump card, it was mentioned as a factor in their decision making by only seven of 35 members of the House committee who participated in Wednesday’s hearing.

And Bruce Riedel, a veteran expert on the region, questioned the Obama administration’s linking of Iran and Syria.

While “the Israelis want us to bomb Syria because they desperately fear Obama will back down on Iran, the two cases are very different,” Riedel said. “Syria is using WMD against its own people; Iran is developing a capability which it wants for deterrence.

“But they are alike in two keys ways,” he continued. “First military action against either Syria or Iran will have unintended consequences probably unforeseen. Limited strikes can grow into open-ended campaigns that become increasingly costly.”
 
Price is a factor
 
Indeed, many in Congress cited the likely financial costs of another American intervention as a reason for caution when the U.S. is short of funds to deal with urgent domestic needs.
 
On Wednesday, Hagel admitted the price tag for even limited strikes would likely be in the “tens of millions” of U.S. dollars. Kerry said unspecified Arab countries had offered “quite significant financial support” and that “some of them have said they will carry the whole cost” of U.S. strikes. But when pressed to name the countries that were offering to take part in the actual mission, Kerry listed only Turkey and France.
 
Under questioning, Kerry conceded that the administration had more work to do to persuade Americans that U.S. military strikes on Syria are worth the risks. Kerry also promised that President Obama would address the American people from the Oval Office to lay out the case for intervention in another Middle Eastern conflict.

Barbara Slavin

Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.

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Comments
     
by: Iddi Yire from: Accra, Ghana
September 07, 2013 8:35 AM
My plead with the good America people is not to attack Syria. Can you imagine giving an upper hand to rebels who could kill and eat the heart of their fellow Syrians because the belong to the governments side. Let's learn from history, the enemy you know is better than the devil you don't know. Prez Obama, Pls don't attack Syria in any way. Two mistakes does not make a right.

In Response

by: jeth from: philippines
September 08, 2013 2:41 AM
My advised to the american people is these,YOU must stop President Obama in his plan to strike syria for YOU know that it is ILLEGAL ,IMMORAL,and COSTLY.See what happened to LIBYA they are now in chaos militants are roaming the country freely.The alleged used of chemical weapons by the assad regime is still UNVERIFIED,there's still no hard evidence that will point to the assad regime the RUSSIAN even submitted a 100 PAGE REPORT to the UNITED NATION that indicate that the REBELS are the one who USED CHEMICAL WEAPON FIRST.


by: Ed from: Brick NJ
September 06, 2013 6:49 PM
All this talk, talk, talk does not recognize the reason we should strike Syria. They have used chemical weapons in violation of a treaty signed by many nations at the end of WWI when it was used by Germany against the Allies. Do we want any country to think it`s now okay to use chemical weapons with impunity? Strike Syria as a reminder that this will not be tolerated. Too bad Mister Obama is going around with his hat in hand begging for approval. Good Lord, Mister President, show some backbone!

In Response

by: Ramnarayan from: Florida, USA
September 07, 2013 3:49 AM
All the world and most of Americans are asking for is do we really know who the "they" are, before taking actions. Nobody disagrees with the fact that the chemical attach happened. Our strength should not be because we have the capability to respond with force, but it should be based on truth and not wishful thinking. .


by: JL from: California
September 06, 2013 12:19 PM
"Serious reservations" is an understatement


by: Ramnarayan from: Florida, USA
September 06, 2013 7:51 AM
Obama and the teams credibility is at stake. Let us not mistake it with the credibility of us americans. Granted, these politicans are supposed to represent all Americans, the reality is that they only represent themselves and the special interests. Obama has neither international support nor the support of most of us Americans. As a Democrat leaning voter, it is facinating to me that in this case, it is most of the republicans are likely to oppose, MaCain and Gramm notwithstanding. Let all the evidence come out, including not just the chemical weapons were used, but who used it. Then US will certainly able to get a consensus across the globe. We need to stop projecting the wild west image in dealing with this problem.
Mr. Obama- Please listen to the public, not just your advisors.


by: Sani Aliyu Hunkuyi(Mr.) from: Nigeria
September 06, 2013 6:41 AM
The USA President Obama should remember himself as a winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize award for promoting peace to the World should not be derailed by the likes of Godwin sending comments to VOA from Nigeria. In fact I felt disappointed to hear President Obama going round to consult with countries like France viewed as a wicked country ever in the forefront of destabilizing the peace in the World. Why I advise against going to War on Syria is because the Commentator (Godwin) from Nigeria should know that we have Nigerian Muslims extremely loyal to Iran. I can swear by Allah that if these Iranian loyalists are invited by Iran to join the war on the side of Syrian Government they will come and fight to the end.

They will see it as Islamic War(Jihad) endorsed by Allah especially if the Islamic Leader of Iran approves it as such. I urge the Republicans and Democrats of the USA to be careful not to allow the Israelites to take the USA into another war which the USA this time will not win. A war viewed as Islamic war the participants with such a belief will fight to the end as quoted from the chief of Iran's elite Quds Force unit. He was quoted by the Media that Iran will support Syria "until the end" in the face of possible US-led military strikes.



by: Anonymous
September 06, 2013 2:48 AM
Well the pro Israel lobby wants this war, so America must be made to bend to its will, whats new here? I have no idea why this attack is so necessary, what are they threatening? our oil supply's, an economic blockade, a military attack on the US? what is it? Oh they supposedly used some chems? Well if you know they did, show us the proof? Show us some real evidence and dont shake an empty vial at the UN. The world does NOT want this attack, only Israel does. There are other ways to deal with this,, unless you just want to continue the crusades.

In Response

by: Sani Aliyu Hunkuyi(Mr.) from: Nigeria
September 07, 2013 8:06 PM
If I may advise Israelites, they are better-off if they seek for dialogue with Iran so that they sit on a round table to express the fears of each other and sign a peace treaty. Israelites are viewed and it is the belief of Muslims that they are ethnic group descent from our respected Prophet Abraham through his son Isaac who himself is believed by us(Muslims) that Isaac was a prophet sent as messenger of Allah(i.e the true God). Muslims can marry an Israelite woman. This is because of Muslims' common belief in one true God (Allah) with Jews(i.e. Isralites) and Christians but that as Governments change currency, Islam is the latest acceptable religion from Allah. And so if you Google Search and ask you will see that a Muslim is permitted in the Muslims Holy Book of Quran that a Muslim can marry an Israelite woman or a Christian woman despite the difference in religion.
Therefore I cannot see why Israelites are too harsh against Muslims. Instead, it is my view that it may not be against the teaching of Islam if the Muslims in Middle-East invite Israel for a negotiation to pay for the disputed lands being occupied by Israelites and may be pay ransom/compensation for the Palestinians who were killed. Israelites are very rich and so they should be able to pay the negotiated sum and also pay for any additional land they may want to occupy in the Middle-East. In other words, Israel should be willing to acquired the lands peacefully and not by force. It is in the Quran that there is no compulsion to accept Islam. But that the Quran makes it clear that any Jew, Christian or follower of any religion who insist in dying on his/her religion and not accepting Islam then such a person should allow Muslims peacefully to practice Islam but that such a person who rejects Islam should be prepared to go to Hell right from the time he/she is put in the grave.


by: Ben from: WA
September 06, 2013 1:06 AM
Why interfere? Muslims are killing fellow Muslims. Solves the issue of Islamist extremism.


by: Ben DeDominicis from: Seoul, South Korea
September 05, 2013 6:51 PM
Israel has several hundred nuclear weapons, so it does not 'desperately fear' anyone. What it does fear is that if Iran and its Arab adversaries develop nuclear weapons, Israel will not have a free hand to deal with the Palestinians in annexing "Judea and Samaria" while establishing itself as the regional hegemon.


by: Luis from: Florida
September 05, 2013 6:42 PM
This is a civil war within a country, not two countries at war. The U.S. has no bussiness getting involved. On top of that they are the enemies of the U.S. They are the ones that cheered when 9/11 happened. Let the Arab countries handle this problem.

In Response

by: Enuff Warz
September 06, 2013 3:01 AM
no they did not cheer, a few Palestinians did, these are Syrians. A lot of Israelis cheered too, know well the wrath of the US would befall these small states. The Pals cheered because US weapons have been killing them for 60 years and have been used to steal their land, why would they not cheer? I would if that had happened to me.


by: Rose from: Canada
September 05, 2013 6:32 PM
"Kerry said unspecified Arab countries had offered “quite significant financial support” and that “some of them have said they will carry the whole cost” of U.S. strikes."

Wow, who knew the US military was actually a mercenary army. Capitalism at it's best, I suppose.

In Response

by: Abibaal from: Norway
September 09, 2013 5:17 AM
A vote from the congress can secure to Obama a national(US) legitimacy and he can declare war between Dakota and Florida. On the other hand if he wants to attack Syria he needs international legitimacy if not the war on Syria will be against international laws and without international legitimacy

In Response

by: Enuff Warz
September 06, 2013 2:56 AM
we know these Arab countries, Saudis, Qataris, UAE etc, the usual suspects spending money to prop fellow dictators and to destroy Egypt's democracy, all in a bid to keep their claws on power, but the US is making a mistake and will get blamed for the misdeeds of these vile Arab countries, I am a Muslim and I can tell you that Saudi Arabia is the head of the snake, it is the main problem which gives birth to extremism yet for some strange reason the US does not want to give up these dinosaurs, their public despises them, stay away from these vultures USA.

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