WASHINGTON — Even as Congress took a step Wednesday toward authorizing the use of force in Syria, a growing number of lawmakers spoke out strongly against a U.S. military strike and warned that it would draw the United States into an escalating conflict that could spread throughout the Middle East.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a resolution for a likely missile attack against Syrian President Bashar Assad in retaliation for his use of chemical weapons two weeks ago, but it prohibited any involvement of U.S. troops.
“It gives the president the wherewithal to have the limited military action that he’s asked for in order to punish Assad for the use of chemical weapons and the killing of innocent civilians,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who chairs the Senate panel. “At the same time, it is tightly tailored by having a time frame in it and by certainly prohibiting American boots — troops — on the ground.”
But the Senate committee’s 10-7 vote indicated deep divisions within Congress that President Obama still must overcome in his quest to demonstrate to Syria, Iran and other nations that the use of chemical or nuclear arms is unacceptable.
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“I don’t see a clear-cut or compelling American interest,” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. “I see a horrible tragedy, but I don’t see that our involvement will lessen the tragedy. I think it may well make the tragedy worse. I think more civilian deaths could occur. I think an attack on Israel could occur. I think an attack on Turkey could occur. I think you could get more Russian involvement and more Iranian involvement. I don’t see anything good coming of our involvement.”
Before voting on the resolution, the Senate panel defeated Paul’s amendment stating that the Constitution doesn’t grant the president power to launch a military attack without congressional approval unless the country faces a direct threat.
Seven Democrats — Menendez, Sens. Barbara Boxer of California, Benjamin Cardin of Maryland, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Christopher Coons of Delaware, Richard Durbin of Illinois and Tim Kaine of Virginia — and three Republicans — Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake — voted for the resolution. Five Republicans — Paul and Sens. James Risch of Idaho, Marco Rubio of Florida, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and John Barrasso of Wyoming — and two Democrats — Christopher Murphy of Connecticut and Tom Udall of New Mexico — voted against it. Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., voted “present.”
“This idea that a military response is the only way to respond to what is happening in Syria is just not true,” Rubio said. “Instead, our response should have always been, and still should be, a multifaceted plan to help the Syrian people get rid of Assad and replace him with a secular and moderate government they deserve.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney praised the Senate committee for passing the resolution.
“We commend the Senate for moving swiftly and for working across party lines on behalf of our national security,” Carney said.
Obama’s top Cabinet officers shuttled between the Senate panel and a key House committee as lawmakers warned them that only a narrow resolution authorizing a limited U.S. military engagement has a chance of passing Congress.
Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, painted a bleak scenario that he said could result from attacking Assad but leaving him in power.
“Assad fights back,” Poe said at a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “He doesn’t just take it. He retaliates against us or lets Iran retaliate against Israel — all because we have come into this civil war. So they shoot back. Then what do we do once Americans are engaged? Do we escalate or do we not fight back?”
Rep. Michael McCaul, another Texas Republican, spoke in still darker tones in worrying about chemical arms being used against Americans by Syrian rebels, who he said are increasingly dominated by radical Islamists from other countries.
“My greatest concern when we look at Syria is, who’s going to fill the vacuum when the Assad regime falls, which we know it will?” McCaul said. “Who is going to fill that vacuum? Are the rebel forces, the extremists, going to take over not only the government, but these (chemical) weapons? Because they are the ones most likely to use these weapons against Americans in the United States.”
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Pentagon is prepared for any consequences of a U.S. strike, which is likely to come from Navy destroyers delivering Tomahawk cruise missiles from the eastern Mediterranean Sea near Syria.
“I can never drive the risk of escalation to zero, but I think that the limited purpose, the partnerships we have in the (Middle East) region, the contributions we’ll seek from others, begin to limit that risk,” Dempsey said.
In Stockholm, Obama said his now-famous red line, which Assad allegedly crossed when hundreds of people were killed in an Aug. 21 chemical-weapons attack outside Damascus, was set earlier by Congress in ratifying the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention and passing legislation in 2004 imposing sanctions on Syria.
“Congress set a red line when it ratified that treaty,” Obama said.
“Congress set a red line when it indicated in a piece of legislation titled the Syria Accountability Act that some of the horrendous things that are happening on the ground there need to be answered for.”
While some lawmakers rallied to support a military response, others criticized it and said they would vote against congressional authorization.
“Iraq is as violent today as any time in its history, and Afghanistan is as poor and corrupt as it’s always been,” said Rep. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y. “The American people are sick and tired of war. It’s time to nation-build in America and invest in the growth of the American economy.”
In testimony to the House panel, Secretary of State John Kerry was more categorical than he’d been a day earlier before the Senate committee in ruling out any possibility of using American troops in Syria.