US Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., is worried that a U.S. strike in Syria could draw the US into a larger conflict. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — US Democratic lawmakers are urging President Barack Obama to clearly define his objective for any military mission in Syria, while also raising concerns about unintended consequences.
Obama told PBS on Wednesday evening that a military strike — most likely Tomahawk missile strikes — would send a message to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad aimed at convincing him to cease his alleged use of chemical weapons.
“If, in fact, we can take limited tailored approaches, not getting drawn into a long conflict — not a repetition of Iraq, which I know a lot of people are worried about — but if we are saying, in a clear and decisive, but very limited way we send a shot across the bow, saying, ‘stop doing this,’ that can have a positive impact on our national security over the long term and may have a positive impact in the sense that chemical weapons are not used again on innocent civilians.”
Republican lawmakers, partly sensing a chance to take a political swipe at Obama, are sharply questioning whether a Syria mission is in US national security interests and whether the president needs congressional approval before launching the first Raytheon-made missile.
But they are not alone. Increasingly, members of Obama’s own political party are raising serious concerns about a potential new US conflict in the Middle East.
Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said this week he is “still waiting to see what, specifically, the administration and other involved partners have to say about a potential military strike.” He should get a better picture later Thursday, when White House officials brief key lawmakers.
Smith, like a growing number of Democrats, will view the White House’s justification for strikes “concerned about how effective such an action could be.”
Additionally, Smith said he is “worried that such action could drag the United States into a broader direct involvement in the conflict.”
For many Democrats, including a number of pro-military members of the House and Senate Armed Services committees, a chief concern is the possibility of American strikes spawning unintended consequences for Washington and its allies in the region.
“Military action could have significant consequences, and there is no guarantee that it would improve the situation or promote a positive outcome,” Smith said. “Any potential use of military force will have long-term costs and will put our troops in harm’s way. Simply lashing out with military force under the banner of ‘doing something’ will not secure our interests in Syria.”
Notably, Smith is concerned about the presence of al-Qaida elements inside Syria. He prefers an approach that would “expand and accelerate our support for moderate elements of the opposition forces with both military and non-military aid.”
With British officials indicating they are not ready to green-light UK forces’ participation in a Syria mission, and with Arab states so far offering only rhetorical support, there is a chance America could act alone.
Not so fast, some key Democrats say.
“I think unilateral action would be a mistake. I think we have to enlist ... a willing coalition,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Vice Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I.. “The statements by Great Britain, by France, by many others, the active statements of some of the Turkish leaders suggest that they could be and would be supportive.
“What the secretary has to do and the president [has to do] is build [a] coalition,” Reed said, referring to Secretary of State John Kerry.
And like other members of Obama’s party, Reed is not yet comfortable with the administration’s stated objective.
“We have to make it clear what our objective is,” Reed said, “which is I think principally that these weapons will not be used and that the Syrians have to put them sort of in a situation where they won’t be used.”
That Reed can only “think” that is the goal underscores Democrats’ desire to sign onto Obama’s action only if its objectives are narrow and achievable.
Senate Armed Services Committee member Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., this week said he believes the administration needs to refine its overall objective for a Syria strike, which he said is at best murky.
For its part, the White House said it merely wants to punish Assad for allegedly using chemical weapons in a lethal Aug. 21 attack. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday the administration’s war plan is not aimed at ousting or killing Assad.
Obama reiterated on Wednesday his opposition to any US ground force inside Syria. To that end, his Democratic colleagues on Capitol Hill are urging the commander in chief to resist calls from some — such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. — for a regime-change operation.
“We should avoid — and I want to just really stress this point — any troops on the ground, whatever our fears about al-Qaida, we should avoid any involvement on the ground,” Blumenthal said this week.
Many Democrats want only, as Blumenthal describes them, “surgical strikes” aimed at addressing Assad’s alleged “violations of international law that have occurred here and the abhorrent use of chemical weapons.” Any US strikes “should be very limited in scope and avoid no commitment to more involvement,” the Connecticut lawmaker said.
Echoing other Democrats, Blumenthal said the White House must consider how to “avoid the consequences in wider conflict that could result from a broader use of military force.”
Should Obama seek congressional approval before launching Tomahawks at Syrian military targets, as more than 100 Republicans and Democrats who have signed a letter are demanding, he will need all the Democratic votes he can get. That’s especially true in the House.
But such a vote could prove challenging for the White House legislative office and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California’s whip operation. That’s because in the lower chamber, Smith is not the only skeptical Armed Services Committee Democrat.
“My concern is that the American people may not have the appetite for a long-term effect. In other words, just shooting in some missiles isn’t really going to take care of the situation and might aggravate the situation,” HASC member Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., said this week. “You have Syria tied to Iran. You’ve got the Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon. The whole area is already a difficult area.
“For Americans to believe that just by shooting a few cruise missiles, we’ve made our statement and away we go,” she warned, “it’s just not the way that I believe this plays out.”
In the Senate, McCain and other interventionist GOP members give Obama the votes he needs — but only on paper. The key would be convincing skeptical Democrats that the mission’s justification and objectives are sound.
To do that, Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., a longtime former Foreign Relations Committee member who supports missile strikes, this week offered some advice to Obama.
“I think for sure the president ... needs to do more to address the American people about this,” said Casey, a member of the chamber’s National Security Working Group, adding Obama should be “very specific” that “our national security interests are at stake here.”
'Directed At Us'
On Wednesday, Obama tried just that, saying Assad has violated “international norms” against chemical-weapons use and “also America’s core self-interests.” He warned that Syria could target America’s allies in the region — Turkey, Jordan, Israel — or US military bases there.
“We cannot see a breach of the nonproliferation norm that allows, potentially, chemical weapons to fall into the hands of all kinds of folks,” Obama said.
“When you start talking about chemical weapons in a country that has the largest stockpile of chemical weapons in the world, where, over time, their control over chemical weapons may erode, where they’re allied to known terrorist organizations that in the past have targeted the United States, then there is a prospect, a possibility in which chemical weapons ... could be directed at us,” Obama said.
But it’s unclear whether his Democratic colleagues will determine that possibility justifies attacking Assad’s forces — and a sovereign Middle East state.
For instance, the lone ending Sanchez can see: US boots on the ground in another Muslim nation — no matter what Obama is saying before entangling America in Syria’s civil strife.
“If we are to go in, if the president consults with the Congress, leadership, those on Armed Services or Intel or Foreign Relations [committees], and ultimately makes the decision to … send those cruise missiles in, I think everybody has to be on notice that that probably isn’t the end of it.,” Sanchez warned. “And is America ready to see … its soldiers in Syria? And I don’t believe that we are.”
Bad Timing, Bad Advice?
There also are concerns within Obama’s party from veteran Washington Democratic insiders. Some are questioning why the White House has backed itself into a corner of bad timing on Syria.
Obama and his national security team, in deciding when to launch strikes, are facing several awkward dates. First was Wednesday’s 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, a major civil rights milestone that was a celebration of a nonviolent movement. Friday is the Muslim holy day and kicks off the Labor Day holiday weekend in the United States. And Obama leaves for the G20 Summit in Russia — one of Syria’s lone remaining allies — on Tuesday.
“He won’t do it on the Holy Day, and then it’s Labor Day weekend. It would just look kind of bad to do it over a long holiday weekend when most Americans will be focused on other things,” one Democratic source said. “Then, it’s the G20 — and even though things aren’t great with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, launching a strike while over there would be seen as a big slap to Putin.”
The Democratic source said many within the party are pointing the finger at Susan Rice for allowing her boss to face such a potential minefield: “The problem is you really don’t have a strong national security adviser in there.”